It’s easy to forget – and perhaps healthier – that two teams lost a 3-to-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Playoffs last season.
But fate matched these teams – the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers – against each other in this year’s second round of playoffs, a sort of group session on how to bounce back from a playoff meltdown. And there are a lot of ratings to compare.
All season, both teams have had to make their peace with the outside world’s difficulty believing in them no matter how well they play or what they accomplish.
Take the Jazz, who just served at home with two impressive wins over the Clippers, behind two glowing performances from star Donovan Mitchell – who finished with 37 points in Thursday night’s 117-111 win in front of 18,306 fans at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
They also had the best NBA record this year, defensive player of the year to Rudy Gobert and sixth man of the year to Jordan Clarkson.
But even Jazz players will tell you that they haven’t proven or done anything yet.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity over the past few years, on and off the pitch,” said Gobert. “We’re at a point where we all understand that we have a great opportunity to accomplish something special this year. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.”
When you lose a 3-1 lead in the series (which has only happened 13 times in NBA playoff history), respect is hard to come by. Both the Clippers and Jazz have had to come to terms with that this season. But both also used this as motivation and as a learning experience. Everyone showed how much they’ve grown in Thursday’s game.
“I think we understand how to handle these things, and that’s what you saw tonight,” Mitchell said. “The level of experience in the bubble helped… just keep doing what we’re doing and understand that they’re going to fight back and we have to keep fighting.”
The Jazz seemed to be heading for an easy win for most of the first half. But just like they did in a seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, Tyronn Lue’s club kept their balance and made key adjustments.
Utah was very good at scoring the dribble, making 17 of 25 shots, so the Clippers switched to zonal defense to try to suppress Mitchell’s practices (he was 8-for-11 on practices in the first half).
It worked. LA ran 46-23 and even took the lead, 101-99, on a 3-point Reggie Jackson with 6:37 left in the fourth quarter.
According to Second Spectrum data, the Jazz only shot 29% on the 18 possessions in which they faced an area on Thursday night.
“When they played in zone I thought our spacing had collapsed,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “Anytime you’re not spaced it’s hard to move the ball.… I thought it was affecting us mentally.”
But the Jazz did not panic. Joe Ingles hit a layup by tilting in a high backboard scoop shot as if playing in a game of HORSE in the backyard. Then Bojan Bogdanovic hit a 3 point to put the Jazz at 104-101.
“There is going to be adversity,” Mitchell said. “We’re not always going to blow them up, blow up teams. It’s the playoffs. It was great to have 21 points, but at the end of the day they performed like they should. Been here before. They’ve got guys who’ve made the finals, made the playoffs, have rings, won championships, so it’s nothing they’ve never seen before. “
The Clippers came back again, however, getting two free throws from Paul George to reduce the lead to 104-103, and a steal from Kawhi Leonard allowed Marcus Morris Sr. to score at 3 points which could have given the advantage in LA.
Instead Morris missed, then Patrick Beverley missed, and 57 seconds later the Jazz were up seven points again after a three-point play from Rudy Gobert and a 3-point play from Royce O’Neale.
Ingles assisted on both games, then scored 3 points with 3:07 left to put the game out of reach, 113-103.
“I answered a lot of questions about [Ingles] and [Clarkson], and I think their game has kind of bolstered who they are, ”Snyder said. “No one needed to know that. They had nothing to prove. But that wasn’t just what showed on the box score. I thought Joe was playing with tremendous poise and confidence, and JC, when he came into the game, he’s able to make plays and hit shots which are usually really dynamic shots. “
For the Clippers, it was a second missed opportunity in a row to steal a road game against the favorite West. But there was also a lot for LA to feel good about.
Jackson continues to play as a guy the Clippers can count on in a role (starting point guard) they’ve been looking for an answer for for almost two seasons.
His 29 points on Thursday led all of the Clippers’ scorers, and 24 of them came in the second half when the Clippers came back from a 21-point deficit.
“He was great tonight,” Leonard said of Jackson. “They let him play on the island. He stayed aggressive. He got to the paint job. He hit hard. He did that for us all year.”
George threw it in the second half as well, finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a few clutch shots in the dying minutes to give LA a shot at stealing the win.
Then there were contributions from Beverley, whose defensive pressure forced two key turnovers as the Clippers staged their rally, and DeMarcus Cousins, who continues to be effective in short pushes against Gobert.
But mostly it was the feeling that they had a chance to win both games in Utah, despite a quick turnaround in the series from Dallas.
“We have to give them credit,” said George. “He’s a tough opponent. They weren’t No.1 in the West for no reason. They’re a tough team. But, you know, we approach it the same way as Dallas; we still think we do. have a lot of goods that we can clean up and a lot of goods that hurt us, it’s our fault.
“So as good as they play, as good as this game is, as tough as this game is, we always feel like there are moments throughout this game, this series, that, you know, we make self-inflicted games It’s a lot of uphill, but we’re optimistic that we can get this under control and come home and one game at a time and try to tie this streak together. “