Clippers change tactics but lose again at Utah; trail series 2-0
The Clippers withstood one run Thursday. It was the second that ended their night.
Now, a team that has fallen behind 0-2 already once in this postseason, and lived to tell about it, returns to Los Angeles facing a similar hole.
Will the second time end their season?
“We’ve got a lot of fight left,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said. “We’re up for the challenge.”
Predicting what will happen in a series that has defied easy description is a foolhardy task. Utah won this second-round series opener despite once missing 20 consecutive shots. Then, in Game 2, a 117-111 Jazz victory, the Clippers appeared done for down 21 points after a disastrous six-minute stretch — only to charge back and take the lead.
Clippers guard Reggie Jackson scored a team-high 29 points, including 14 in the third quarter, and Paul George added 27. Kawhi Leonard added 21 points but has yet to dominate the series as he did the first round.
Highlights of the Utah Jazz’s 117-111 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on June 10, 2021, in Salt Lakes City.
Donovan Mitchell scored 37 for Utah and Jordan Clarkson added 24 off the bench; they made 12 combined three-pointers, one more than the entire Clippers roster. Afterward Clippers coach Tyronn Lue repeated that his team had to “take the challenge” of guarding Mitchell, one-on-one — despite having hammered home the point of defending with more physicality to his team for the previous 24 hours.
It was because they could not that sparked the game-changing strategic change. Down 21 in the third quarter after allowing a 24-5 run by Utah, having exhausted nearly every defensive strategy and seen them all backfire, the Clippers finally found their zone, both literally and metaphorically.
With two defenders moving around the three-point arc and three teammates behind them, the shifting shape generated confusion instead of open shots for the Jazz and an opportunity to strike for the Clippers.
After Mitchell scored 27 points in the first half, and fired two laser-sharp assists for a dunk and three-pointer within the opening possessions of the second when the Clippers tried to blitz a second defender, he scored just three in the third quarter. The Clippers began a 22-6 run, and by 6:55 to play in the fourth quarter, Jackson — whose offense had lifted his team just as its defense began to find its footing –— drilled a three-pointer for a 101-99 lead, the Clippers’ first of the game.
“I think we found something that we liked with the zone,” Jackson said. “We had to switch something up. It helped us out some.”
Several in soldout Vivint Arena covered their heads with their hands. A game that appeared over was in doubt. Utah’s apparent vise grip on the series had loosened.
The Clippers had been so wary of driving into the paint and tempting the shot-blocking prowess of Utah’s 7-foot Rudy Gobert that their drive-and-pass offense that helped them generate one of the NBA’s largest percentages of wide-open shots during the regular season was effectively neutered.
Yet with little working, they began dribbling downhill and kicking the ball to open shooters, who knocked down 12 of 19 shots in the third quarter.
But the Clippers could not finish the job. Jackson’s three-pointer was their one and only lead. They missed their next nine shots, outscored 14-4 over the next five minutes.
“Four or five wide open threes,” Lue said. “We just didn’t make them.”
The ineffective end mirrored their start, falling behind 10-2 for a second consecutive game despite switching up their starting lineup to insert 7-foot center Ivica Zubac in place of 6-8 Nicolas Batum.
The Clippers’ smaller lineups switched screens with the intent to goad Utah into one-on-one offense; with Zubac playing a “drop” coverage that left him standing several feet away from the screen, Mitchell was able to walk into uncontested jumpers, which he sank.
Utah ended the first half on a 14-3 run over three minutes, which began when backup center DeMarcus Cousins’ minutes outlived their effectiveness. In less than 80 seconds, Cousins traveled, missed a three-pointer and was blocked at the rim by Rudy Gobert, and Utah seized on the empty possessions, scoring six points to take their first double-digit lead.
“You can’t dig yourself a hole like that against a good team and then you have to [spend] and all your energy trying to get back in the game and you don’t have enough to finish,” Lue said.
That the Clippers have been here before is no consolation. Utah is not Dallas. Deep and experienced, with an all-NBA scorer at the helm in Mitchell surrounded by Gobert, a three-time defensive player of the year whose mere presence altered numerous Clippers drives, Utah has shown a steely resolve through two games and now stands two victories from their first Western Conference final since 2007.
“I made, what? One shot in the fourth quarter? Two shots in the second half?” Mitchell said. “I don’t feel like I have to do everything with this team. It’s great to have a group of guys who trust you and who you trust.”
The Clippers say they are keeping the faith.
“We are going to have to communicate tremendously,” Jackson said. “… Attack the paint and shoot the shots when you’re open and just have faith, have trust in the work and go out and play free. You know, like I said, have faith and trust that we are going to get this Game 3.”
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