Saturdays 108-95 win over the Utah Jazz might end up going down as the most important win of the season for the Clippers depending on how the playoffs go. With the win, the Clippers clinched a playoff spot for the sixth season in a row pulled to within a half of a game behind the Jazz for the Western Conference fourth seed. The victory also gave them the tie-breaker between the two teams via the Clip’s 3-1 record against the Jazz this season. Even with the season winding down, there is still time for the Thunder or Grizzlies to make a late push for the fifth seed but things are shaping up for Clippers and Jazz first round match-up. The four games that the teams have played against each other have shown us a lot and if the two teams do wind up playing in the first round of the postseason, here are some key factors to keep an eye on.
The Battle of the Big-Men:
DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert are regarded as two of the best defensive centers in the present-day NBA. Gobert, a clear front-runner for this year’s DPOY award, has had his best season on both ends of the court averaging 13.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks while leading the league in multiple defensive categories such as Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares. DeAndre may not be in the running for the award this year but is still one of the league best rim protectors and both centers are incredibly efficient at finishing around the rim, 70.7 percent for DJ and 65.8 percent for Gobert respectively.
The hardest and most important task for the two players is defending without fouling. For the Clippers, DJ is the only true rim protector on the roster with Speights being more of an offensive center and that puts a lot of pressure on Jordan to stay in the game. With DeAndre on the floor, the Clips have an offensive rating of 111.8 and a defensive rating of 103.9. When he’s on the bench, their offensive rating drops to a 105.1 and the defensive rating rises to 109.7. The numbers show that there is a noticeable difference on both ends for the Clippers when Jordan is out of the game and shows why it is important for him to stay out of foul trouble and on the court. The on-off split for Gobert is similar to Jordan’s, if not more significant. When Gobert is on the court the Jazz’s defensive rating is 100.2 compared to 107.3 when he’s off the court and their offensive rating is only 103.5 with him on the bench compared to the 108.4 rating with him on. If one of these centers gets into foul trouble, their respective team is going to take a hit on both ends of the court which could certainly affect the outcome of the game.
Gordon Hayward’s Struggles vs the Clippers:
In the three games that Gordon Hayward has played against the Clippers this season the Jazz are 1-2. When he is on the court, Hayward has struggled on the offensive end often being guarded by one of the Clipper’s better defenders, Luc Mbah a Moute. The Jazz’s offensive rating against the Clips with Hayward on the floor is a measly 96.1 and his net rating is a -17.7. Hayward, who made his first all-star appearance this season, is one of the more underrated scorers in the league averaging 21.8 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting and 39.2 percent from three.
In the Jazz’s two losses against the Clippers this season in which Hayward played (he missed the third due to injury) his numbers drop to just 10 points per game while his shooting drops to 29.2 percent shooting from the floor and 27.3 percent from three. The drop in his play is significantly correlated to the Jazz’s success against the Clippers as evident by his stats in the team’s lone victory against Los Angeles. In that game, Hayward played better than his averages and scored 27 points while going 9-18 from the floor and 4-5 from three to lead the Jazz to a six-point victory. If the Jazz can get that kind of output from him against the Clips in the playoffs they could take Los Angeles down but if his past performances reflect how he’ll play in a potential first round matchup, the Clippers should have no trouble winning the series.
The Health of Derrick Favors:
The Jazz’s usual starting power forward has been plagued with injuries this season and has only been able to play 47 games. His most recent injury, a bone contusion in his left knee, has kept him sidelined since March 7th with no timetable for his return. With Favors out, the Jazz have chosen to play Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson for the majority of the power forward minutes with a very small amount going to Trey Lyles. This provides the Clippers with a very significant advantage at the four spot as neither players can match up well against Blake Griffin. Johnson has been a small forward for most his career and doesn’t really have the size or strength to guard Griffin in the post and his athleticism is wavering as he moves into his fifteenth year in the league. Diaw, in his thirteenth season, is still a savvy player on both sides of the floor but doesn’t have the defensive abilities to slow down Griffin either. Against the Jazz this season, Griffin has averaged 16.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists but the Jazz’s game plan for guarding him changes without any true size to match up against him.
The Clippers took advantage of this mismatch many times during Saturday’s win and it produced multiple problems for the Jazz. When Blake posts up against Diaw or Johnson it puts Rudy Gobert in a tough spot. If Gobert doesn’t rotate over to provide help defense, Griffin will just back down and bully his defender and usually end up with a good look at the rim. If Gobert does rotate and provides the help defense, he leaves the paint unattended and open for offensive rebounds. DJ was the benefactor of this action and grabbed six offensive rebounds in the game, two of which were easy put back dunks. Pulling Gobert out of the paint and away from the basket opens cutting lanes too and Blake is a good enough passer to make those difficult assists.