by Daniel Olsen
Last week, the Utah Jazz defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in five games. Now, the playoff push continues against the Los Angeles Clippers. They had a hard fought seven game series with the Dallas Mavericks. The Jazz will have had six days to rest for this series. They are seeking their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2007. It’s time to dissect this matchup and see what the Jazz need to do to come out on top.
Make someone not named Kawhi beat you
Kawhi Leonard is a two-time NBA Finals MVP for a reason. He has won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors. Nobody has ever won Finals MVP with three different teams.
Leonard in this postseason so far is fourth in scoring with 32.1 points-per-game. He is the best player in this series. However, the Jazz have the better team. If they are smart, they will try to avoid isolation situations with Leonard. If they get their hand caught in the cookie jar a few times, that’s fine. However, they must contain Leonard. If they send multiple guys at him, the Clippers don’t have the shooting depth to keep up with the Jazz.
Leonard is also a positive impact for what he does on defense. He might be assigned to take on the best player on the Jazz. However, sometimes that is a pick-your-poison scenario. While Donovan Mitchell is special, other guys like Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic can punish opposing teams from the perimeter. It will take a team defensive effort by the Clippers to slow down the Jazz.
The Jazz had one of the best three-point shooting seasons in NBA history this year. It will be tough against the long, athletic Clipper defenders. However, Ty Lue isn’t the basketball mastermind that Quin Snyder is. The Jazz will draw up plays to get open shots. They just need to make them.
If the Jazz can make Kawhi less of a factor on both ends, they have a chance to end this series and do so quickly. If he is playing like Finals MVP Kawhi and the rest of the team shows up, the Jazz might as well give themselves a round of applause for a great regular season because they will yet again miss the Western Conference Finals in that case.
Donovan Mitchell needs to be special
Donovan Mitchell is one of the young superstars in this league. He has been named Dwyane Wade 2.0 by Stephen A. Smith of ESPN. This is due to his athletic play at the rim combined with a three-point shot that Wade never had.
Mitchell averaged 28.5 points-per-game in the first round of the NBA playoffs. He sat out in Game 1 as a precaution from a lower ankle sprained he suffered in the regular season. While he looked fine against the Grizzlies, he will need to pick up the pace to beat the Clippers.
Mitchell doesn’t need to score at Luka Doncic levels. Doncic averaged a league high 35.7 points-per-game in the first round. It was eerily similar to Mitchell’s average last year in the Playoff Bubble. However, Mitchell had the more impressive games as he scored over 50 points twice in those playoffs.
Mitchell doesn’t need to score 50 or even 40. He has a team around him which is something Doncic didn’t have. He can’t afford an anemic shooting performance like he did early in his playoff career though. He should score at least 20 points on a bad night, 30 points most nights and even a 40 point game might be necessary if his supporting cast is sluggish one night.
Mitchell needs to prove to the media, especially a certain TNT analyst, that he is a superstar. Jazz fans already know he is, but he just needs to do whatever it takes to win and prove it in the playoffs. Whether that’s making a perfect pass, hustling for a loose ball, or intimidating the opposing team, it is imperative that Donovan plays like one of the top dogs in this series.
He doesn’t have to be Kawhi, but he should definitely play like the second best offensive player. Paul George cannot be more clutch than Mitchell in this series. If he somehow showed up like the “Playoff P” he has proclaimed to be, then it might be the sign of an apocalypse anyways.
Health is key
The Jazz can’t afford to have their stars miss many games, if any at all. Their strength is numbers so they need all their horses ready for this playoff race. Gobert is key for their defense. Bogdanovic is a weapon the Jazz didn’t have last year in the playoffs. Conley needs to have that hamstring ready to go. As mentioned previously, Mitchell is absolutely critical. The Jazz offense wasn’t the same in their three-point loss to the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the previous series.
If Mitchell were to sit, the Jazz would be all but guaranteeing a loss to a fully loaded Clippers squad. Maybe if someone like Niang or O’Neale can’t go, the Jazz would be fine. However, they cannot afford to lose a game due to one of their stars or either of their Sixth Man of the Year candidates sitting out.
Prediction: If the Jazz do all three of the above mentioned things, they will win in six games. If they only have two of these three keys go their way, it will go seven and be a toss up. Barring a catastrophic injury by a star, or an other-worldly performance from Kawhi, the Jazz will win this series.
Featured image courtesy Rick Bowmer, Associated Press