10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Jazz -2.5, Over/Under: 223.5
An absolutely PIVOTAL Game Five is on tap tonight from Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, as the (One Seed) Utah Jazz look to regain momentum after dropping back-to-back outings against the (Four Seed) Los Angeles Clippers, who have designs on taking another step towards advancing to what would be their first Western Conference Final in franchise history. At this point, the Clippers (47-25, 4th in Western Conference) must be feeling a sense of deja vu, for they find themselves squared away at two games apiece for the second consecutive series, with an all-important fifth chapter yet to be written. When we describe tonight’s affair as pivotal, we’re not dealing in hyperbole here, folks; historically speaking, when a series is tied at 2-2 the winner of Game Five goes on to win said series an overwhelming 82.8% of the time (164-34). However, Los Angeles can proudly count themselves as one of those thirty-four teams to buck that narrative; with their previous series against the (Five Seed) Dallas Mavericks tied at two games, they would lose Game Five (105-100) in narrow fashion, only to rally back to convincing victories on the road in Game Six (104-97) and at STAPLES Center in Game Seven (126-111). The energy that they needed to expend in that particular matchup proved to be a detriment in the early goings of this Western Semifinal against the Jazz, for in the first two games of the series (Head Coach) Tyronn Lue’s charges visibly ran out of gas late, particularly in Game One; the Clippers were outscored 65-49 in the Second Half, a 112-109 defeat, shooting a miserable 37.2% from the field, including 5-of-19 from beyond the arc (26.3%), with the tandem of (All-Star Wings) Kawhi Leonard (24.8 PTS, 51.2% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.6 STL, 26.0 PER) and Paul George (23.3 PTS, 46.7% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 20.5 PER) combining for all but eighteen of their side’s forty-nine points after Halftime. Game Two would prove to be a tighter affair, though the outcome was no different as Utah pulled away late to earn a 117-111 victory. In this case, Los Angeles put forth a more even-keel performance offensively, shooting 47.1% from the field and 11-of-30 from downtown (36.7%) while hanging around on the strength of their free-throw shooting (20-of-23 FT), but they were overrun on the defensive end where for the second consecutive game the hosts torched them on over 50.0% shooting, netting a blistering 55.3% from the field, including 20-of-39 from three (51.3%). With that said, just as they did against the Mavericks, Lue and his Coaching Staff went back to the lab to make some serious adjustments which have paid immediate dividends, particularly on the defensive end; with the venue shifting to the City of Angels, the hosts would outscore the visiting side by a combined margin of FORTY points, relegating them to a much more subdued 42.9% from the floor, while winning the battle on the glass (Plus-4) and stalling their ball-movement at a mere 17.0 assists per game. So what has Lue changed, you ask? Well, first and foremost he’s transitioned to a smaller lineup in which all five players are operating largely outside of the paint, which has forced (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) Rudy Gobert (more on him shortly) to shift away from the rim, opening up driving lanes for the likes of Leonard and George. Los Angeles has averaged 125.0 points in the last two contests, with the dynamic duo accounting for roughly half of that figure (62.5 PTS). George has also assumed the responsibilities at Point Guard, which has in turn allowed the likes of (journeyman Point Guard) Reggie Jackson (10.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 43.3% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.2 PER) and (veteran Forward) Marcus Morris (13.4 PTS, 47.3% FG, 47.3% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.5 PER) to pick their spots in catch and shoot scenarios. Remember, the Clippers were the most lethal three-point shooting team in the National Basketball Association in 2020-2021, knocking down an insane 41.1% of their attempts with eight different members of the rotation netting at least 39.0% from the perimeter, and that was without the luxury of a consistent Point Guard for the bulk of the campaign. We cannot overstate how important it is for this team to continue exhibiting such resilience, particularly given how their previous postseason run ended in ruins. Billed by many as the betting favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy last Fall, the Clippers authored one of the most inexplicable collapses in recent memory, wasting a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, losing each of the final three chapters of the series, including a Game Seven in which they we could manage just thirty-three points in the Second Half of a decisive 104-98 disaster. As you can imagine, the team was absolutely CRUSHED for their failure (particularly by the media), and spent the entire offseason and the ensuing campaign repeatedly answering questions of their mental fragility. Simply put, this being professional sports, the only way to quiet their detractors is to win, and with a victory tonight those voices would get a bit quieter… at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, at this point we’re starting to wonder if the Jazz (52-20, 1st in Western Conference) have finally reached the bottom of their proverbial bag of tricks, for after a strong start to this Western Semifinal they find themselves on the verge of losing any semblance of control. For a variety of reasons Utah enjoyed a stellar campaign in 2020-2021, earning the best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history, while also cleaning up on the awards circuit, with the aforementioned Rudy Gobert (14.3 PTS, 67.5% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 2.7 BLK, 23.5 PER) taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors for the third time in the last four years, while (sparkplug Guard) Jordan Clarkson (18.4 PTS, 42.5% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.1 PER) won the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Furthermore, (Head Coach) Quin Snyder’s charges were the only team in the Association to rank in the Top-5 in both offensive and defensive rating this season (Plus-9.3, 1st Overall), employing an entertaining brand of basketball which saw them lead the NBA in both three-point field goals (1,205) and attempts (3,098). They were also one of the few teams to remain largely healthy throughout the condensed campaign, or at least until it’s latter stages; (All-Star Guard) Donovan Mitchell (26.4 PTS, 43.8% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 21.3 PER) missed the final sixteen games of the regular season with a high ankle sprain, which also caused him to miss his club’s opening entry to their First Round matchup with the (Eight Seed) Memphis Grizzlies, which ended in a narrow 112-109 defeat in Game One. However, the 24-year old would make his return immediately afterward, leading the Jazz to four straight victories, in which he averaged a robust 28.5 points on 45.0% shooting, including 40.0% from beyond the arc, with the West’s top seed besting their opponent by a combined forty-five points. Unfortunately, as they welcomed back their leading scorer they would eventually lose their floor general, with (veteran Point Guard) Mike Conley (16.2 PTS, 44.4% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.2 PER) reaggravating a hamstring strain that caused him to miss nine of the final eleven games of the season. The 33-year old who was selected to his first All-Star appearance back in the Spring, logged just over eleven minutes of Utah’s clinching Game Five before departing with discomfort in his hamstring, and as a result has yet to suit up in this Western Semifinal. We touched upon some of the issues that their opponent has experienced due to a lack of consistency at the position, and with the veteran sidelined his absence has grown more and more noticeable with each passing outing. Say what you will about the Clippers and their mental fragility, for they still possess one of the most talented rotations in the league armed with a plethora of lengthy, experienced, top-tier perimeter defenders that can really make things difficult over the course of a series. And this is where Snyder & Co are missing Conley the most; on the season, the Jazz averaged just 23.7 assists (23rd Overall) in comparison to committing 14.2 turnovers (18th Overall), and that was with him in the lineup for fifty-one games. Without him they’ve dished out only 16.8 assists through the first four games of this series, with Los Angeles keying in on the likes of Mitchell and Clarkson when they’re in possession. Furthermore, Clarkson has really begun to struggle of late, with the explosive Sixth Man sputtering to 11.0 points per game on a dismal 28.6% shooting in the two defeats, including a nightmarish eight-point performance on 3-of-12 shooting in Game Four’s 118-104 loss. And then there is the case of the aforementioned Gobert, who has been taken out of his element thanks to Lue’s ingenuity with smaller lineups. The towering French International is a one-man wall in the paint, but these matchups have dictated that he be drawn out of his comfort zone, in turn opening up driving and passing lanes in the paint, which Los Angeles has mercilessly exploited over the last two contests. He was saddled with foul trouble in Sunday’s blowout, with his side getting burned on the defensive end on 51.8% shooting and 46.6% from downtown in Games Three and Four. So at this point what are the Jazz to do as it appears the Clippers have claimed a vice-grip on the momentum of this series? Well, a healthy Conley would do wonders on both ends of the court, affording them a two-way presence in the Backcourt that can facilitate more ball-movement and tee up his teammates, who clearly miss his presence in this regard, while also offering another threat from the perimeter who can knock down open threes at a stellar clip (41.2% 3FG). They also need to adjust to all the constant switching that their opponent does defensively, which has deterred them from some of the sets that they like to run in the Halfcourt. Of course, that’s an issue that Conley would solve, but with the vet labeled Day-to-Day, it’s uncertain when (or if) we’ll see him in action in this series. Then again, it may be too late, for we’ve already touched upon the fortunes of teams who lose Game Five under these circumstances.