2021 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Jazz (1) vs. Clippers (4)

Series Preview: Rested Jazz, tested Clippers set to square off

Utah, with the league's best record, cruised against Memphis. The Clippers needed Game 7 to knock off the Mavs. Who's more ready?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Utah's defense will be a stiffer test for LA, but will it ultimately matter against Kawhi Leonard?

If you’re a fan of the new-age NBA where low-post play is virtually nonexistent and the goal is to go iso-ball, toss plenty of 3-pointers and play some solid defense, this is the series you’ve been waiting for.

When it comes to that style of play, the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers do it as well if not better than anyone. Therefore, it’s perhaps appropriate for these two forces to meet and decide which one is better equipped to take it to the next level and round.

The Jazz are all about Donovan Mitchell on top of the key, trying to break down his man. Ditto for the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. In the event a double-team arrives, each team has made a habit of finding the open man, who’s almost exclusively standing behind the arc. And now you know why the Jazz and Clippers were among the NBA’s best and most reliant long-distance shooters this season.

It’s easy to say the stars will decide the series as that usually happens this time of year. But don’t be surprised if they cancel each other out and a member of the supporting cast makes a name for himself.

Utah does have one advantage over the Clippers: Rudy Gobert. He’s the rim protector who’ll be on guard in case Kawhi decides to play bully-ball, as is his pattern. The Clippers, meanwhile, boast a very solid perimeter defense, which will come in handy against the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson and Utah’s other shooters.

One of these teams is already battle-tested and bruised from the first round, the other is well rested and mostly untested. Does that matter this time of year, or even in this series? Generally, no, at least not beyond Game 1. Neither team owns a title and while this dubious distinction may go unchanged come July, one of them is guaranteed to take that dry spell into next season.

So it’s Jazz vs. Clippers, a team that holds the No. 1 seed (Utah) vs. the team that probably believes it is the best in the West (LA). These are virtual carbon copies competing against each other, so may the best copy win.

3 things to watch

Is Conley healthy?: Jazz point guard Mike Conley is dealing with a mild hamstring strain and isn’t guaranteed to play Game 1. These injuries are tricky, so there’s always the chance Conley could be limited by the injury. This would obviously be a setback for the Jazz. With the exception of Mitchell’s ankle injury last month, they were among the healthiest contenders in the league.

Who’s at the point for LA?: Speaking of point guards, who’s carrying the load for the Clippers? Pat Beverly was a ghost in the first round and he dealt with injuries late in 2020-21. Rajon Rondo wasn’t “Playoff Rondo.” Instead, the Clippers went heavily with Reggie Jackson, who had solid moments, with a bit of Terance Mann tossed in. When the season began, both players were barely in the rotation, but they both finished strong and earned their promotions. Look for Jackson to continue starting and getting the call in the fourth quarter until further notice.

Clarkson, Ingles struggling: The Jazz can throw the Kia Sixth Man Award winner (Clarkson) and the runner-up (Ingles) on the floor this series, but both have had been inconsistent lately. Clarkson started the regular season strong and finished weakly (and vice-versa for Ingles). In the first round, neither played to their level. Utah could use a comeback from both if only to force the defense to make some big decisions on whom to guard, and also to help with the load in the event Conley is gimpy.

Number to know

67.5%: In the Clippers’ seven-game, first round series against the Dallas Mavericks, Kawhi Leonard registered an effective field goal percentage of 67.5%, the second-highest mark for a player who averaged at least 30 points per game in a series in (at least) the last 55 years. He shot 61% from the field (including 16-for-23 from mid-range) and 43% from 3-point range, while also shooting 90% on seven free throw attempts per game. It was a special performance, highlighted by Leonard’s 45 points on 18-for-25 shooting in Game 6 in Dallas.

The Jazz have a very different defense than that of the Mavs. In fact, in his two seasons with the Clippers, Leonard has an effective field goal percentage of just 45.8% in four games against Utah. That’s his lowest mark against any opponent over the last two years, and includes just 7-for-16 (5-for-13 with Rudy Gobert on the floor) in the restricted area.

Kawhi Leonard, lowest effective FG%, by opponent, last two seasons

Opponent FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3PT% eFG% TS%
Utah 33 93 35.5% 5 23 21.7% 38.2% 45.8%
Boston 25 66 37.9% 4 21 19.0% 40.9% 48.5%
Phoenix 49 116 42.2% 10 29 34.5% 46.6% 52.7%
Portland 31 73 42.5% 6 19 31.6% 46.6% 54.8%
Milwaukee 25 56 44.6% 3 14 21.4% 47.3% 52.3%

eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
TS% = PTS (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))

— John Schuhmann

The Pick

The Jazz are undefeated with Mitchell on the floor, and while that’s a very short sample size — just three games — and it came against the Grizzlies, Utah is very complete when Mitchell is healthy and causing problems for the team on the other bench. Utah has been at or near the top of the West all season, and this was viewed somewhat suspiciously because most of the other contenders (Denver, Lakers, Clippers) dealt with injuries. That’s probably shortchanging the Jazz, and yet they’re about to see a Clippers team that just went through the fire and feels free. Also, LA has two stars vs. one for the Jazz. Clippers in 7.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.