2017 NBA Playoffs Preview: Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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Rudy Gobert leads the Utah Jazz into their first NBA playoffs since 2012, set to face a finally healthy Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers in one of the most hyped matchups of the first round.

Schedule

  • Game 1 – Sat. April 15  Utah at L.A. Clippers, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
  • Game 2 – Tue. April 18  Utah at L.A. Clippers, 10:30 p.m., TNT
  • Game 3 – Fri. April 21  L.A. Clippers at Utah, 10 p.m., ESPN2
  • Game 4 – Sun. April 23  L.A. Clippers at Utah,  9 p.m., TNT
  • Game 5 * Tue. April 25  Utah at L.A. Clippers, TBD
  • Game 6 * Fri. April 28  L.A. Clippers at Utah, TBD
  • Game 7 * Sun. April 30  Utah at L.A. Clippers, TBD

Utah Jazz Keys To Victory

If you forgot Joe Johnson was on the Utah Jazz, jokes on you: They in the playoffs, baby (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Saying “stop Chris Paul” would be an easy way of going about this, but if anyone has an idea on how to do that, an NBA team will pay you a lot of money.

Paul is going to get his fill of pick-and-roll action with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, as he always does, and even with the top defensive center in the league in Rudy Gobert, that’s naturally going to generate a bunch of buckets. George Hill is a good defender and should have some amount of success alongside Gobert (the Jazz have the third best defensive rating in the league at 105.3, with the Hill/Gobert combo on the floor they’re +11.4. Not bad for a formerly average point guard and center).

More realistically, the Jazz will have to find an answer to Griffin, mostly because there seems to be an actual chance of doing that. Be it injuries piling up or a lack of confidence, Griffin put together what is likely his worst season in the NBA this year, highlighted by a career low in shooting percentage and ten percent drop in two-point field goal attempts.

The guy who just a few years ago lived on SportsCenter’s Top 10 for monster slams, for whatever reason, stopped attacking the rim during the second half of the season, largely spurred by a career-low 67 percent shooting mark within three feet of the rim.

That puts Utah coach Quinn Snyder in a tough position. Either he can play the trend and put a smaller forward like Gordon Hayward or Joe Johnson on Griffin and hope he doesn’t use his explosiveness to plow through them, or use an excellent low-block presence like Derrick Favors on him and risk Blake torching the Jazz in the mid-range and outside games.

Favors is likely the better option and has played well in limited minutes over the three games since his return, but it’s a big demand to ask him to step up and play 25 minutes of high-quality playoff basketball.

The most likely response is a hybrid solution. Favors can get 10-15 minutes of action on Griffin, with a Hayward and Johnson duo splitting the rest of the time, plus occasional contributions from Rodney Hood or Boris Diaw.

Johnson especially is an interesting answer to Griffin. He has the veteran know-how and engine to stay on Blake for short spurts, especially if Griffin isn’t interested in banging down in the low post. If Joe Cool (underrated nickname) can post a half quarter of above par defense against Griffin, that could help the Jazz keep Hayward on Mbah A Moute duty, thus keeping him fresh for offense.

Johnson stays right in front of Griffin, doesn’t allow himself to get bullied ad eventually forces a short-armed jump hook and a miss. Jazz ball, empty possession for the Clippers 15 minutes a night of that, that’s all it takes.

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss keys for the Jazz and not mention Rudy Gobert’s play. The likely All-NBA selection has made a big jump this season, averaging career highs in points per game (14.0) and rebounding (12.9), while leading the league in blocks per game (2.9). His screens set up almost all of Utah’s offense and have been a major reason why Hill has played so well when healthy–Gobert simply opens up the floor for his teammates.

For this series, it isn’t so much what Gobert will do in terms of X’s and O’s, but in his ability to maintain his composure.

Gobert has gotten into it with various members of the Clippers this season, including this gem:

I’m willing to go out on a limb and say these two teams don’t really like each other, as scraps like that have broken out throughout all four of their regular-season meetings. Gobert seems to have found himself at the center of the storm almost every time, with Paul saying publicly that Rudy, “likes to talk.”

I’m all for some NBA playoffs scrapping, but for the sake of these two teams, they’ll have to keep it together. For the sake of my entertainment though, I’d love to see Paul try to go after Gobert, because as much as I love CP3… someone has to shut that guy up out there (hey man, it is actually possibly that you have fouled someone before… or that you have not been fouled before).

Los Angeles Clippers Keys To Victory

As good as Gobert has been for the Jazz this season, let’s not kid ourselves–Chris Paul is the best player in this series and if the Clippers want to advance, they’re going to need a big performance from him.

Paul started in 61 games this season, his lowest total since 2010, but led the Clippers to a 48-13 record in those games. Extended over an 82 game schedule, that winning percentage would have been good for 58 wins and the third seed. But alas, the games were missed and here we are, with LA in the fifth seed after having its worst season since Paul came aboard.

While his team postseason struggles have been well-documented, Paul actually played well as an individual come postseason time, shooting 48.3 percent and averaging 21 ppg and 9.4 apg. He’ll have to be at his best against the stout defense of Utah and Hill.

Defensively, Doc Rivers used a lot of switching to address the Jazz screen-happy offense, particularly with Blake Griffin.

Here, Griffin and Paul successfully switch onto Dante Exum and Johnson, with Paul standing his ground against Joe Cool and eventually forcing a miss with help from Griffin. Rebound Blake, empty possession for Utah despite using the entire shot clock.

Things don’t go as well for Griffin below, as he switches on Rudy Gobert only to watch as Diaw lobs an alley-oop to his big man.

Griffin’s athleticism is a genuine x-factor defensively and could allow for the Clippers to switch him around off of screens. But Rivers will have to be selective in how willing he is to go to that trick, as Griffin could get left watching Gobert throw down oops all series if the Clippers can’t find an answer.

With Paul, Griffin and JJ Reddick all coming off the books this summer, this series could be the end of an era in Clipper-land (the shoddy, half falling apart apartment building across the street from Laker-Land, which looks suspiciously like Disney Land). Doc Rivers has said that changes may have to be made if this Clippers team can’t finally break through this year.

 

It’s assumed that Paul will be coming back regardless, but Griffin and Reddick could both be gearing up for their final NBA playoffs run in Los Angeles.

Matchup To Watch: Rudy Gobert vs DeAndre Jordan

Two words: Slam-a-Jammas.

https://twitter.com/Linhares_Sean/status/851561751489503232

Gobert and DJ are near clones of each other in terms of playing style.

Neither would dare to shoot it outside of five feet, both operate almost exclusively setting screens or waiting to dive at the rim for a two-hand slam, both throw down with an ungodly amount of fury, both play exceptional defense and both dominate the glass. Something has got to give!

In fact, the only real difference is that the Jazz are more patient with Gobert, allowing him to set multiple screens per possession and give the offense a bunch of chances at success. The Clippers, meanwhile, try to get Jordan involved directly earlier in the shot clock, leading to more transition slams for DJ.

In terms of wins and losses, it’s most likely that Gobert and Jordan cancel each other out and don’t play any particularly major role in the series. Both big men will have a bunch of highlight dunks and blocks, play strong team defense and ultimately not get to even sniff the ball over the final two minutes when the game is on the line.

However, that doesn’t mean the two won’t be worth watching. The fact that Gobert is fairly strongly disliked by the Clippers should lead to plenty of playoff-chippiness down low between the two as they battle for board and positioning.

I’m here for minimally talented post moves between two physical monsters!

We don’t get many great battles between physical brutes in the paint anymore. In fact, this might be one of the last times we see it between players of this caliber.

Enjoy it.

The NBA playoffs are back!

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