DeAndre Jordon versus Rudy Gobert was the key matchup for many coming into the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers first round matchup during this year’s NBA Playoffs.
After all, the two are virtually mirror images of each other. Both freakish 7-footers that can defend the rim at a premier-level, while excelling in the pick-and-roll and slamming home lobs on the offensive end. In fact, Gobert and Jordan ranked second and fourth respectively in screen assists per game during the regular season.
No, they can’t handle like Steph or Kyrie. But they’re equally important to how their team’s schemes are setup.
Gobert’s screens give Gordon Hayward, George Hill and the rest of the Jazz offense just enough room to create a shot for themselves or penetrate and break an opposing defense down. Defensively, he’s considered by most to be a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year and while he isn’t the favorite to win it (Draymond’s the only guy who can guard all five positions on the floor, sorry folks but thems be the facts), he’s still probably the league’s best rim defender. That gives Utah’s perimeter guys a lot of leeway to take risks defensively, most because it gives them confidence that a help-defender will be there if they get beat.
Jordan’s athleticism, meanwhile, has made him into one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league, as there simply aren’t many big men capable of recovering in time to stop the dreaded Jordan-Chris Paul alley-oop combo. In-fact, one of the few centers capable of that task might have been Gobert himself.
You’ll note the past tense there. Might have been.
We’ll never know for sure, at least not in Game’s 2 or 3 of this series. 13 seconds into Game 1, Gobert got his knee caught while setting an off-ball screen, bending it at an awkward angle and had to be helped to the locker room. While no structural damage was found and the injury was officially ruled as a left-knee strain, Gobert has been ruled out for at least the next week or two by coach Quinn Snyder, meaning there wouldn’t be any Steifel Tower for the Jazz in Game 2 Tuesday night or for Game 3 on Friday night.
Utah managed to sneak out of Game 1 with a victory thanks to Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beating heroics despite the loss of Gobert.
Game 2… not so much.
Jordan failed to really capitalize on the Gobert-less Jazz defense in Game 1, taking only 7 field goal attempts and finishing with 10 points. The Clippers followed Jordan’s lead and stayed away from the rim despite Gobert’s absence, prompting (eternally overrated) coach Doc Rivers to implore his team to attack the paint more in Game 2.
Jordan and Blake Griffin obliged.
If Rivers was upset with his team’s ability to assert themselves in the paint, he sure isn’t after Game 2.
That is a grown man move by DJ, lowering the shoulder against the smaller Jeff Whithey (who also looks like he could easily be two 8-year-olds sitting on each other’s shoulders), creating space and finishing through contact. Two points and he goes to the line for one more.
This time, it’s Blake going downhill towards the rim, exploding through an overmatched (and somewhat sad-looking) combo of Boris Diaw and Joe Ingles on his way to an easy two points.
Oh, and that’s not the half of it. DJ and Blake dominated the paint for the first three-quarters of action, eventually finishing for a combined 20-for-32. For reference, here’s some of their best work from last night:
Pretty much, those are three consecutive plays of Jordan either blowing past Derrick Favors, who lacks the athleticism to match him, and Whithey, who simply can’t match up with him. Jordan asserted his will on the Jazz and unless Favor’s grows wings or Whithey turns into an All-NBA center overnight, Utah is going to continue to get bludgeoned for the remainder of this series.
As has become a tradition for the Clippers though, Jordan and Griffin disappeared in the fourth quarter (Jordan because of foul trouble, Griffin because what would you expect?), with DJ not even taking a shot and Blake going 2-for-3 from the field.
With the Jazz still within striking distance throughout the fourth, cutting the deficit to 6 with 2 Paul went 3-for-5 from the field, including a bunch of big shots that helped keep the game out of reach for Utah.
Up by 6, stuck in the corner with the shot clock winding down against a bigger defender. No problem. Paul steps back and buries the tough three-ball to take the momentum from Utah.
Again, the Clippers lead is down to just 6 points. Again, Paul is forced into a tough shot. Spoiler alert: he drills it, this time coming off the screen from Griffin.
Paul eventually assisted on Blake’s game-sealing three with 1:35 left in the fourth, skipping a bounce pass to a wide-open Griffin in the corner.
Griffin finishes it off, giving Paul his final assist for a masterful 21 point, 10 assist performance and the Clippers their first victory of the 2017 NBA playoffs.
It’s worth noting that Utah never let this game get away from them, relying on timely buckets from Hayward and Johnson to keep it close but the combined 11-for-30 mark from the two simply wasn’t enough for the Jazz.
Hayward in particular appears to be struggling without Gobert, falling to a 12-for-32 mark for the series. Mostly, Hayward has simply been missing open shots, but he’s also struggled to get to the rim consistently without his primary screen-setter, settling for a lot of contested mid-range jumpers.
If Luc Mbah A Moute can continue to refuse Hayward access to the paint and Hayward can’t make his open shots, Utah likely will lack the fire power to make a serious run at the Clippers, regardless of whether or not Gobert is playing.
The series now moves back to Utah for Game 3 and with Gobert expected not to play, the Jazz are going to need a rebound performance from their top two offensive threats in order to take the series lead back. But with a finally-healthy Clippers team coming off a performance that reminded many of their early season dominance, that task might be easier said than done.
If LA can continue to attack the rim early in the shot-clock, the Jazz lack the defensive ability to stop them without Gobert, while similarly lacking the offensive firepower to match the Clippers scoring with Hayward struggling. Unless something changes quick for Utah, they might be getting ran out of this series.