Unfortunate news hit the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, as they will be without Kawhi Leonard for Game 5 of this second-round series against the Utah Jazz.
The details of Leonard’s right knee injury can be found here. His status for the rest of the series and the Clippers’ playoff run is yet to be determined.
With the Clippers tying their series at 2-2, on the backs of Leonard and Paul George’s 62 combined points on just 39 shots in Game 4, it was worth diving into the specifics of how they flipped the script in this matchup.
Note: These two sections below were written before Leonard’s injury was announced.
Clippers’ defense improves at home
The narrative around L.A. getting back on its feet and stealing the momentum of this series will inevitably point to the Clippers’ progression to the mean on outside shooting. In a sample of just a handful of games, teams are not promised to shoot at the same rate they have all season long, in a larger 72-game sample.
Stars are usually more predictable because of their innate ability to overpower the toughest defenses, generate their own offense when nothing else is working, and (typically) elevate their individual games into a zone very few can reach.
However, there is never a guarantee that role players snap out of a dry spell over the course of a best-of-seven series. That’s where series can be won or lost. Multiple bad stretches by critical role players or spot-up shooters can cost a top-tier contender a shot at the gold. It’s the beauty — and evil — of basketball. Or any team sport, for that matter.
Offensively, the Clippers reverted back to their league-leading ways once they trailed 0-2 in the series. Shooting a combined 34-of-73 (46.6%) on 3-pointers in their two home games, L.A. simply made up for their cold, barren shooting touch on quality looks in Salt Lake City. Systematically, not too much changed in Games 3 and 4 from their offensive philosophy compared to Games 1 and 2. Shots just finally dropped.
But, that wasn’t exactly the main takeaway from the series-tying victory in Game 4.
The story of this becoming a tied series at 2-2, heading back to Utah, starts with the Clippers ramping up their defensive poise and intensity in the halfcourt.
Once his team dropped the first two games on the road, Ty Lue understood he needed to tweak a few things.
One of the major changes was simply not allowing Donovan Mitchell to walk into relatively easy pull-up threes in the early stages of the game. For most coaches, including Lue, starting the game by establishing what type of defensive effort you’re going to show is high on the importance meter. Thus, the Clippers went away from their “drop” coverage scheme in the early minutes of Games 3 and 4 by starting small.
With the switchy Nic Batum starting in place of traditional center, Ivica Zubac, it allowed the Clippers to toggle between various defensive setups. By forcing Mitchell to work against the quartet of Nic Batum, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Marcus Morris, the Clippers minimized the weaknesses he could exploit. They surrounded the court with a healthy mixture of length, above-average lateral footspeed (even if Batum isn’t the same player he was in 2014), and four guys who can use their perimeter expertise to keep Utah’s superstar at bay – at least in the first quarter.
Despite his 37.2 points per game average in the series, Mitchell’s last two opening quarters (in Games 3 and 4) have given the Clippers enough of a blueprint. In Staples Center, Mitchell has scored just four points on nine shots across the 19 total first-quarter minutes.
Defensively, there is still one weak link for the Clippers in their best lineups. That happens to be Reggie Jackson, who exploded from beyond the arc at such a high clip to begin this season that his impact as a floor spacer is outweighing the negatives on defense.
After the first two games, the Clippers transformed into a more dialed-in defense and looked more like the ideal version of what they could be when Leonard and George came aboard in 2019.
All postseason, even during the battle with Dallas, slow starts have haunted the Clippers. Up until Monday’s Game 4 versus Utah, they would get scorched in the opening stretch of games, mostly due to their inability to get stops.
Just how bad was it?
In the first three minutes of every game versus Dallas and Games 1-3 versus Utah, the Clippers had been outscored 92-40. That’s a 52-point advantage for the opposition in those 30 total minutes.
There had to be a change for Game 4. They had to stop the trend.
In the opening minutes on Monday, the Clippers jumped out to a 13-4 lead, sparked from their aggressiveness on Mitchell and being tied together defensively.
“I thought it was our defense really setting the tone,” Lue said. “Only giving up 13 points in that first quarter, we were able to get out in transition. But, I thought our physicality and attention to detail were pretty good. Of course, we made some mistakes and that’s going to happen when you’re playing a game of basketball. But overall, I thought we were really locked in.”
The Jazz only managed to score 13 points on 23 total possessions in the first quarter, being held to a 56.5 offensive rating.
It was easy to sense how L.A. wanted to approach the Mitchell assignment to start the game. Here, once Mitchell gives it up to Bogdanovic on the curl, George works diligently to deny him the return pass:
As George starts the game face-guarding Utah’s number one option, it influenced Bogdanovic to penetrate the lane and attempt to make a play. Batum was doing a superb job “splitting the difference” on the weakside, in a position where he needed to zone up the corner and wing. It resulted in a Jazz turnover.
The whole night, especially in the small-ball minutes, L.A.’s perimeter defenders were flying around. Take this possession, for instance:
- In the first few seconds, the Clippers switched twice. Leonard starts on Mitchell, concedes the switch with Jackson, and then Morris takes the assignment once Favors sets the ball-screen.
- Clarkson, oddly, decides to drive on Leonard. Notice how Jackson steps up to cut off the rim, while Leonard switches to Favors in the dunker spot.
- After the first two actions are blown up, the ball is handed back to Mitchell. Look at how high up Morris is playing him, essentially pushing the ball-handler to 35-plus feet.
- From there, Jackson comes up to send the late double. This forces the ball out of Mitchell’s hands and Utah is working against the shot clock. It was a picture-perfect defensive possession.
“Once you watch film and kind of break down what the other team is doing, it helps a lot,” Morris said after the game. “We always say this is chess, not checkers. It’s about critiquing the game and figuring out what works for us. Every series is going to present something different.”
The Clippers continued to force Mitchell into a crowd once he did break the perimeter barrier. With Leonard playing this far off Royce O’Neale and providing help defense in the middle, Mitchell is caught off guard by how much L.A. is swarming him:
When you really break it down, the first quarter on Monday is what determined everything. It set the stage for how the Clippers wanted to disrupt Mitchell, and their defensive strategy allowed them to get easier opportunities in transition than they’ve had all postseason.
The Clippers led 30-13 after the first period, but were actually outscored 91-88 the rest of the way. Of course, some of that had to do with Leonard being on the bench for the final four minutes in the fourth quarter, but Utah finally started getting to the rim and knocking down their open looks in the third quarter to spark a run.
The defensive possession that will stick with me the most in the first quarter, which enabled the Clippers to jump on Utah so viciously, is this one:
Not only was it a masterful trap by Leonard and Morris to get the ball out of Mitchell’s hands with six on the clock, but everything on the backside was as good as Lue could ask for.
Batum rotating over to Gobert before the Jazz could find him with a pass, Morris rerouting to the corner at the right time, and Batum playing the “Draymond role” of providing help on the ball-handler while also being cautious of the lob threat.
It also doesn’t help that Utah’s playmakers continue to miss Gobert on nearly every roll or lob opportunity, tossing the ball far lower than they should. I would suggest trying to find the 7’3” giant with better passes, particularly when he’s on the court against L.A.’s small-ball unit.
A look at Utah’s rim frequency and efficiency in the first two rounds paints a surprising picture of how well the Clippers are containing the middle in this series.
Jazz vs. Grizzlies:
- 28.5% of Utah’s shots came at the rim – making 70.3% of them.
- 22.1% of Utah’s shots came in the floater range – making 45.3% of them.
Jazz vs. Clippers:
- 25.5% of Utah’s shots are coming at the rim – making only 59.4%.
- 19.1% of Utah’s shots are coming in the floater range – making only 37.1%.
The Gobert-Favors conundrum
Perhaps the most fascinating swing in this series is the stark difference in L.A.’s offensive shot profile and general halfcourt attack when Favors is on the floor instead of Gobert.
Internally, it seems the Clippers made the collective decision to hunt everything possible inside the paint when Favors checks in for Gobert. Through four games, there is no evidence to suggest L.A. views Favors as a competent rim deterrent or paint protector. It’s wild to say, considering Favors might still be one of the league’s best backup bigs, but the Clippers are certainly testing his abilities.
The main tug-of-war of this series has come down to the Jazz failing to tread water when Gobert is off the floor. In the 131 minutes Gobert has played, Utah has actually outscored L.A. by two points. So, while it’s not at the level that screams most valuable, it says a lot that Utah is plus-two with their best defender on the court in a 2-2 series split.
With Gobert has rested and Favors takes his spot, the Jazz have been outscored by 30 total points in just 57 minutes of action. They are bleeding points all over the place, and the Clippers are relentlessly attacking him.
It translates to a 146.1 defensive rating for Utah when Favors is on the floor, compared to (just) 111.1 when Gobert is in the middle. Neither number is good for a title-contender to have defensively, but the Jazz can still survive in the Gobert stints.
The problem has been exacerbated by Jazz head coach Quin Snyder not increasing Gobert’s minute totals.
Gobert has only played more than 33 minutes once in these four games, and is yet to crack 36 minutes. Although foul trouble and fatigue might be the talking points coaches refer to when asked about extending a center’s minutes … this is the postseason. All of the hours of work, practice, and team building you’ve dedicated to a common goal, for one single playoff run, can’t be wasted — especially if your season is on the line.
Gobert hasn’t fouled out of any of these games, either. He’s finished with five fouls twice. Extending his minutes and minimizing the chunk of minutes Favors is getting overwhelmed at the rim would be conducive for the Jazz regaining control of this series.
When Gobert is lurking in the paint, the Clippers have mostly decided against testing him in the restricted area.
If Leonard found himself getting downhill and putting pressure on the paint, he would often look to collapse the defense and pass out of those drives. With Gobert in front of him, it would either lead to corner kick-out:
Or a complete shift in the decision-making process once Leonard realized it wouldn’t be the smartest use of a possession to go up with the French destroyer.
As Leonard wisely backs out of the paint on the first try, then passes out to George on the second drive, Gobert is stretched too thin by the lack of discipline from his teammate, Joe Ingles:
Gobert tries to retreat to Leonard, who would have been open on the relocation after the pass. Once that happens, all Ingles has to do is close out to George in a controlled manner and force the Clippers to operate in isolation. With only five on the shot clock, it may have led to an inefficient attempt. Instead, Ingles gets blown by, and there’s no rim protection inside.
On other possessions like the one below, once Leonard is stalled by Gobert inside, they didn’t let the Clippers get off a great look. Notice how Leonard appears spooked by Gobert’s presence once he comes around the screen:
He backs it out, then tries to use his speed to get by Gobert, and eventually runs into the same wall. It’s basically a dead possession once Leonard passes out of it, and Morris has to fire up a contested three that misses.
Gobert has done the best job you can ask of a traditional center playing most of his minutes against smaller lineups. He’s been asked to strike a balance between moving around the perimeter and preventing easy shots at the rim. That’s not easy for someone his size, but his mobility and second efforts have caught the Clippers off guard a few times:
When Favors is the man in the middle, the Clippers have created practically everything Lue has been searching for.
Whether it’s Leonard pursuing the rim after surveying the defense near the elbows, George putting his head down in transition to get all the way to basket, or drawing help and opening the corners, the Clippers have feasted in Favors’ minutes:
When asked postgame if there was a specific game plan change for his team with Favors in the middle instead of Gobert, Lue acknowledged how different their offensive mentality is depending on the Jazz center.
“Yeah, we’ve been talking about it since Game 2,” Lue said. “Just how we want to attack, what we want to attack. PG did a great job of just getting to the basket and getting to the free throw line. We know the formula of how we want to play.”
Without Leonard in the mix for Game 5 due to injury, the Jazz might be able to withstand the same minute load with Favors at center. It’s one fewer wing to penetrate the lane, and Leonard has been their best facilitator in those situations as well.
Still, Snyder needs to find a few more chances to put his three-time Defensive Player of the Year on the court in the most important games of their season.
The Clippers, who had finally settled on a nine-man rotation with the small-ball starters plus Patrick Beverley, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, and Ivica Zubac, will have to decide how to handle Leonard’s absence. Starting Mann and giving him the brunt of the responsibility might be the best way to go, considering his size to guard opposing wings and the energetic boost that can ignite transition opportunities.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Lue value the added spacing dynamic Kennard gives them alongside Jackson-George-Batum-Morris. The issue L.A. will inevitably face is handing Mitchell the combo of Jackson and Kennard to pick on defensively. The traps and blitzes won’t be nearly as effective without Leonard’s length in those spots.
Regardless of what Lue decides to do with his lineups in the absence of his best player, the Clippers’ curse might indeed be a real thing. Right when they were putting together the puzzle of how to get the Jazz in a vulnerable position on both ends of the floor, their luck turned sideways.