10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Jazz -4.5, Over/Under: 224.5
Elite teams face off for the second time in three nights as the surging Utah Jazz take the best record in the NBA to the City of Angels where they meet the Los Angeles Clippers, from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Arguably the biggest surprise of the 2020-2021 season is the Jazz (24-5, 1st in Western Conference), who have been in a form that has been rarely seen in the National Basketball Association. Utah have won twenty of their last twenty-one games, including nine straight, with a staggering EIGHTEEN of them by ten or more points. During this run, they’ve averaged 118.3 points per game on 47.3% shooting, including 40.2% from beyond the arc, outscoring the opposition by a margin of 14.0 points, all the while allowing just 104.3 points on 43.3% shooting from the field. Three-point shooting has proven to be the difference-maker for Quin Snyder’s side, who have bested their opponents by a commanding 21.0 points in that regard, which really isn’t much of a surprise given their standing as the league’s most prolific unit from the perimeter. Through twenty-nine games, no team has attempted (42.3) or made (16.6) more threes than these guys, all the while netting a stellar 39.3% of their attempts (4th Overall), with a whopping 48.2% of their field goal attempts coming from long-range, which is the highest such percentage in NBA history. So what the hell has happened in Salt Lake City, you ask? Well, for all intents and purposes this team that has been so successful thus far is the side that we were supposed to be treated to last season. The Jazz made a concerted effort to improve their firepower two summers ago when they signed (sharpshooting Forward) Bojan Bogdanovic (15.2 PTS, 41.6% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.1 AST, 12.3 PER) in Free Agency, while engineering a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for (veteran Point Guard) Mike Conley (16.0 PTS, 45.0% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.8 PER), with both players expected to transform the offense into a more efficient unit. However, the acclimation of the latter was much slower than anyone could have predicted, while the former unfortunately suffered a torn ligament in his right wrist shortly before the team’s return to action following the NBA’s four-month hiatus due to COVID-19. This season both have been integral pieces to their success, with Bogdanovic averaging 15.2 points on 38.7% shooting from three, and Conley adding 16.5 points and team-highs in both assists (5.8) and steals (1.4). Furthermore, the Bench has been very productive with the return of (Power Forward) Derrick Favors (6.3 PTS, 62.9% FG, 5.6 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 20.6 PER) in Free Agency coupled with the eruption of (Combo Guard) Jordan Clarkson (18.2 PTS, 45.3% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 19.0 PER), with the latter looking like the early favorite for Sixth Man of the Year honors. The 28-year old is averaging career-highs in points (18.2) and rebounds (4.1) in 26.2 minutes a night off the bench, with some huge performances highlighting his campaign, most notably a 40-point outburst in Monday’s 134-123 victory over the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers. Oh, and you may have noticed that we’ve failed to mention Utah’s two pillars, (All-Star Guard) Donovan Mitchell (24.2 PTS, 42.7% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 5.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 18.9 PER) and (two-time Defensive Player of the Year) Rudy Gobert (14.2 PTS, 64.0% FG, 13.4 REB, 1.3 AST, 2.7 BLK, 23.2 PER), who have clearly put their differences in the past en route to making beautiful music in Salt Lake City. Mitchell has thrived with a veteran playmaker such as Conley beside him in the backcourt, while Gobert appears to be on a mission since signing a massive five-year/$205 million contract extension to remain with the franchise, making sure that the Jazz don’t regress defensively despite becoming so prolific on the offensive end of the hardwood. Utah ranks third overall in points allowed (106.0) and field goal percentage defense (44.0%), while leading the league in rebounds (48.7), assists allowed (22.0), and three-pointers yielded (11.0), all the while being the only team in the NBA to rank in the Top-4 in both offensive (117.4) and defensive (107.6) rating, with a stellar net rating of Plus-9.8 (1st Overall).
“I think it really started from the defensive end, our physicality. They were really aggressive in the first half. They were just playing harder than us. Regardless of who we play, we can’t really let that happen if we’re going to be the team we want to be. In the second half, we became more aggressive and we got better shots.”Rudy Gobert on the Jazz’s Second Half surge in Wednesday’s 114-96 victory at the shorthanded Clippers, winning their twentieth game in twenty-one contests
When we last saw the Jazz, they stormed into the City of Angels and extended their winning streak to nine games on the strength of a 114-96 victory over the shorthanded Clippers, who were without their top two leading scorers, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, due to injury (more on them in a bit). Remarkably, the hosts led 51-46 at Halftime, with the the visiting side struggling to find their rhythm in the First Half in which they shot just 38.8% from the field, including an uncharacteristic 5-of-17 from beyond the arc (29.4%), with nearly as many turnovers (6) as assists (8). However, Snyder’s charges broke the game wide-open towards the end of the Third Quarter as they manufactured a commanding 14-2 run to bridge the third and fourth periods, before hitting Los Angeles upside the head with a 16-2 stretch to finish them off in the final stanza. All in all, Utah outscored them 68-45 in the Second Half, shooting 46.9% from the floor, including 8-of-23 from downtown (34.8%), and 14-of-16 from the free-throw line (87.5%), while manhandling the home side on the glass (Plus-11), with eleven offensive rebounds affording them a plethora of second-chance looks. Mitchell led the way with twenty-four pints on just 9-of-22 shooting (40.9%), including 2-of-6 from three (33.3%), but contributed in other ways with seven rebounds and assists apiece in addition to four steals. Gobert dominated en route to his second 20-20 performance of the campaign, with twenty-three points (17 of which came in the Second Half) on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), and twenty rebounds, while also knocking down 7-of-8 free-throws (87.5%). (Veteran Forwards) Royce O’Neale (7.9 PTS, 46.2% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, 10.5 PER) and Joe Ingles (11.8 PTS, 51.8% FG, 45.1% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.7 AST, 16.7 PER) added twelve and fourteen points respectively, with the former totaling eight rebounds and the latter drilling 3-of-4 from the perimeter (75.0%) with five assists of his own. Once again, Clarkson made an impact off the bench, finishing with eighteen points but did so on a dismal 7-of-23 shooting overall (30.4%), including 4-of-12 from three (33.3%). Second Half surge aside, it was clear that the Jazz really missed the presence of Conley in this particular matchup (19 assists, 13 turnovers), as the 33-year old missed his sixth consecutive game with a tender hamstring which is expected to keep him out of the second leg of the two-step with the Clippers.
Meanwhile, as their opponent continues to build more and more momentum, the Clippers (21-9, 3rd in Western Conference) have been steadily lurking in the background out West though at this point they’re simply looking to maintain their lofty standing within the conference hierarchy as their two biggest guns return to health. Los Angeles has been without (All-Star Guard) Paul George (24.4 PTS, 50.8% FG, 47.8% 3FG, 6.32 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.2 PER) now for seven consecutive games due to a sore toe, while (All-NBA Forward) Kawhi Leonard (26.7 PTS, 51.3% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 27.5 PER) has been sidelined for the last three outings with a bruised leg. Now you would think that having to to take the court without one of the most prolific tandems of wings in the league would be MAJOR detriment to Tyronn Lue’s charges, but they’ve actually handled themselves quite well in their absence, putting together a 3-2 record without Leonard and George. In fact, their resiliency was on display in Monday night’s surprising 125-118 victory over the reigning Eastern Conference Champion, Miami Heat; this was an affair in which the Clippers managed to shoot a stellar 55.3% from the field, including a whopping 15-of-32 from beyond the arc (46.9%), with a healthy thirty-one assists in comparison to just twelve turnovers. Six different players scored in double-figures on that night, led by (veteran Forward) Marcus Morris (13.2 PTS, 45.0% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 15.0 PER), who posted a season-high thirty-two points on 11-of-15 shooting (73.3%) and 6-of-8 from downtown (75.0%), while (young Center) Ivica Zubac (8.3 PTS, 66.9% FG, 6.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 BLK, 20.5 PER) added twenty-two points and eight rebounds off the bench. This is just a fraction of the mental overhaul that Lue is undergoing as he looks to move his team past the monumental disaster that was last year’s trek through the Playoffs. Of course, Los Angeles was on EVERYONE’s radar after acquiring the services of Leonard and George in the same offseason, which by all metrics was a masterstroke adding their talents to a deep roster that was already of postseason caliber. However, after a solid run through the Regular Season netted them the Two Seed out West they were embarrassed in the Semifinals by the Denver Nuggets, who as heavy underdogs rallied back from (what was thought to be a insurmountable) 3-1 deficit to eliminate them in seven games. Both Leonard and George underperformed heavily during that collapse which inevitably costed (former Head Coach) Doc Rivers his job leaving his former charges to point figures at one another. Lue, who had spent that campaign as Rivers’ lead assistant, was eventually promoted on the strength of his experience in leading talented teams driven by stars and their egos. The 43-year old is lauded for ability to communicate with today’s players, with his tenure in Cleveland proving to be the most fashionable feather in his cap; under his watch the Cavaliers advanced to three consecutive NBA Finals, engineering the greatest upset in NBA History as his side rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to topple the 73-win Golden State Warriors, all the while managing the likes of (four-time MVP) LeBron James and (All-NBA Guard) Kyrie Irving among others. However, as much credit as gets as a motivator and communicator, Lue doesn’t get enough credit for his prowess in other areas, for Los Angeles has proven to be a much more efficient offensive force under his watchful eye; the Clippers have averaged 115.4 points per game (5th Overall) on 48.5% shooting from the field (4th Overall), including a league-best 42.2% from three (1st Overall), while committing just 13.3 turnovers (5th Overall). Furthermore, his work with Leonard and George has been commendable, with both stars shooting well over 50.0% from the field thus far, with the latter enjoying career-highs in field goal percentage (50.8%), three-point percentage (47.8%), and assists (5.5).
“I can’t fault our effort and our competing, (but) it’s just one of those games where they played well enough to beat us, especially in the fourth quarter when they got it going. That’s why they’re the best in the league defensively, because of the way they make you play.”Tyronn Lue on the Clippers admirable performance in Wednesday’s 114-96 loss to the Jazz, which came without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George due to injury
When we last saw the Clippers, their four-game winning streak unfortunately came to an end at the hands of the NBA-leading Utah Jazz, who ran away in the Second Half of a114-96 affair. With both Leonard and George out of action for a third consecutive game, it felt like Los Angeles was playing with house money, particularly in the First Half where they managed to match Utah blow for blow over the first twenty-four minutes of action. Just as they did against the Heat, the hosts relied upon their depth to make plays as they shot a solid 48.8% from the field, including 5-of-9 from beyond the arc (55.6%), with the only thing holding them back being turnovers, committing as many as they did assists (9) en route to a surprising 51-46 lead at intermission. (Multi-Sixth Man of the Year recipient) Lou Williams (12.4 PTS, 42.3% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.5 PER) caught fire with all but two of his sixteen points coming within the period on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%), while (veteran Guard) Reggie Jackson (8.6 PTS, 42.7% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.3 PER) added ten points, five rebounds, and three assists. Unfortunately, it was a different story altogether in the Second Half, with the visitors outscoring them by a whopping twenty-three points, settling into a groove as the home side continued to make mistakes with eight more turnovers. This was a big factor in the outcome of the contest, as Lue’s charges saw their eighteen total turnovers turn into twenty-one points for the visiting side. Williams led the way with sixteen points, while Jackson added fifteen of his own, though both players did the majority of their damage in the First Half of the affair. (Veteran Center) Serge Ibaka (11.8 PTS, 51.5% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.2 BLK, 18.2 PER), who has proven to be an excellent addition in Free Agency, chipped in with ten points and four rebounds, while (defensive-stopper) Patrick Beverley (8.3 PTS, 43.5% FG, 44.3% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.8 BLK, 13.7 PER) finished with eight points, four rebounds, and a pair of assists, steals, and blocks apiece in his return after missing the previous meeting with Miami. Lue has been cautious in managing the 32-year old’s workload after he missed nine of the previous thirteen outings with a knee injury. (Veteran Swingman) Nicolas Batum (9.7 PTS, 49.2% FG, 45.6% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.4 STL, 14.8 PER) also missed this game as well, with the Frenchman still dealing with effects of a concussion suffered in last weekend’s thumping of the Cavaliers (128-111). Tonight will mark the third time that these teams will have met, with the Jazz taking each of the previous two contests, including a 106-100 encounter in Salt Lake City back on New Year’s Day. Both Leonard and George are considered Day-to-Day with their respective injuries, though there seems to be more optimism that the former could return to action before the latter.