This story is over 5 years old.


The Clippers-Jazz Battle Will Be Won or Lost on the Perimeter

After Rudy Gobert went down with an injury in Game 1, the playoff series between the Jazz and the Clippers turned into a battle over the perimeter.
Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the NBA Playoffs, the first-round matchup between the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz looked like it would be one of the rare modern series where both teams started and stayed "big" throughout. The Clippers' Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan frontcourt would allow the Jazz to play Rudy Gobert alongside the big man of their choice (Boris Diaw or Derrick Favors), and vice versa. Those interior players also figured to play a major role in tipping the balance of the series; whether the Jazz would be able to match up with Griffin and if the Clippers could figure out how to scheme Gobert away from the basket seemed like two major questions that needed answering.


That all changed 17 seconds into Game 1, when Gobert went down with a hyperextended knee after Luc Mbah a Moute bumped into him while chasing Gordon Hayward around a screen. That sequence—Mbah a Moute chasing Hayward around a screen—turned out to be emblematic of what the series has actually become: a battle between the perimeter players.

Read More: By Going Small, the Celtics Have Discovered a Big Advantage Against the Bulls

The tête-à-tête between Hayward and Mbah a Moute through the first three games of the series (Hayward left Game 4 early due to a bout of food poisoning) was wonderful to watch. Mbah a Moute used his length and strength to hound Hayward into two subpar performances across the first two games (33 points on 12 of 30 from the field, only five total assists) before Quin Snyder went to the lab and cooked up several sets for the specific purpose of getting Hayward more separation from his man.

Snyder involved Hayward in a ton of off-ball action designed to get Mbah a Moute a step or more behind so that the Clippers either had to send extra help or switch. Hayward set or faked off-ball screens before wheeling around to take dribble hand-offs, run off flares, or pin a smaller man in the post, and the Clips too often got lost in the confusion. The result was magical 21-point first quarter that helped him finally get untracked in Game 3.

L.A. had some second-half counters designed to stop the bleeding; they stopped switching anything off the ball and had Mbah a Moute fight through screens whenever possible. Hayward still wound up with a career playoff-high 40 points, but it wasn't enough for the Jazz to pull out the win, because Chris Paul happened.


When the Chris Paul hits. Photo by Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Paul has been the best player on the floor through four games, leading the series in scoring (26.8 points per game) and assists (10.8, making him the only player in the league with double-digit assists in every playoff game). He almost single-handedly powered the Clippers to wins in Games 2 and 3, where Utah's general inability to keep him out of the middle of the floor on pick-and-rolls—high, side, or snug; and whether guarded by George Hill, as in most of Game 2, or Joe Ingles in most of Game 3—was a death knell.

Paul broke out every trick in the book to shred every single coverage the Jazz threw at him: hesitations, in-and-outs, behind-the-backs, cross-court bullets, lobs, fadeaways, floaters, and more. He directly created 65 points out of pick-and-rolls alone across those two games; that's over 35 percent of L.A.'s total points in those games, and that total doesn't even include any of his secondary or free-throw assists. It was poetry in motion.

The Jazz made an adjustment late in Game 3 to show hard on Paul's side pick-and-rolls. The Clippers eventually figured out a way to counter it by moving the screens up higher on the floor, giving Paul a runway of space to attack the paint, but Utah returned to the strategy again in Game 4 and experienced much more success.

It's a good thing for the Clippers that Paul had those Game 2 and 3 performances in him, because J.J. Redick has been held entirely in check. The Jazz—namely, Hill, Ingles, and Rodney Hood—have taken away every inch of possible air space from Redick and have not let him get into anything remotely resembling a rhythm. Redick has been one of the NBA's premier moderate-to-high-volume shooting wings for years, but Utah has limited him to 29 total shot attempts in four games. He averaged six attempts from three per game during the regular season, but has taken just 15 total in Games 1 through 4. Worse yet, he's not even making the attempts he gets—he's ten of 29 overall, and four of 15 from deep.


More often than not, Redick has gotten stay-attached coverage and has even occasionally had a second defender paying at least 50 percent of his attention to him, because the Jazz are mostly pretending that Mbah a Moute doesn't exist on the offensive side of the floor. Mbah a Moute has made a couple of well-timed cuts to take advantage of that, and the Clippers have moved Redick to get help defenders out of position, but those adjustments have come at the cost of their most valuable floor-spacer being completely invisible through the early part of the series.

Ingles was his usual solid if unspectacular self through the first three games, but he lit the Clippers up in Game 4, helping set the stage for Joe Johnson's heroics down the stretch. He tallied ten assists through the first three quarters of the game and finished with 11, but while his passing display was brilliant, the Clippers often hurt themselves with the way they defended him. Ingles is a knockdown three-point shooter (he made 44.1 percent of his treys during the regular season) but he's reluctant and struggles to shoot whenever he's asked to create his own look off the bounce.

Ingles took 154 shots off > one dribble all year. Shot 41% on those looks. I'd rather him pull up or take a floater than dish if I'm LAC.

— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5)April 24, 2017

Instead of sagging off him once he put the ball on the floor, though, the Clippers too often sent a third man to help, giving the six-foot-eight Ingles clear passing lanes.


L.A. had Mbah a Moute fake help before dropping off late in the game, and it resulted in a rare turnover. Even that wasn't enough to prevent the Jazz from coming away with a win, though, because Iso Joe stuck a dagger into their hearts.

Bargain free-agent signing Joe Johnson averaged 23.6 minutes per game during the regular season, but Gobert's injury in Game 1 thrust him into a larger role during the playoffs, and he has delivered beyond any reasonable expectation. Johnson has played at least 29 minutes in each of the four games, and has not only been Utah's best player in each of their two wins, but has essentially been the entirety of their close-and-late offense both times.

With Hayward largely struggling and Hill forced to maneuver against one of the best defensive point guards in basketball, Johnson's ability to both space the floor and take his man off the dribble from the power forward spot has been a godsend for a Utah team badly in need of another creator. Neither Griffin nor Mo Speights can hang with him off the dribble, and he can still finish over traffic and hands in his face when the game is on the line. There are no good adjustments for that kind of player beyond getting the ball out of his hands entirely, and there should be no doubt that Doc Rivers will try to figure out a way to do that as the series moves forward.

Gobert is back now, and his presence will surely be felt across the final two or three games of the series. He looked surprisingly swift in tallying 15 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks across 24 minutes in his return. But the Clippers have Jordan as their answer to Gobert, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the two have similar impacts in these final games. This series is going to be won or lost on the perimeter, and whichever team better adjusts to the other's guards and wings figures to move on to the next round.

Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.