This Western Conference playoff field was supposed to be wide open. The Lakers and Clippers, two preseason favorites, had fallen out of the top spots, thanks to a rash of injuries and a shameless tank, respectively. The third-seeded Nuggets lost Jamal Murray to a torn ACL near the end of the regular season. And the surging Trail Blazers and Warriors, with two unstoppable guards no one wanted to face, lurked near the bottom of the bracket.
Most of all, the conference’s two best regular-season teams—the Jazz and Suns—boasted little to no track record of playoff success. The NBA is historically a league without much parity; the vast majority of Finalists come from the top playoff seeds. But if ever there was a season to mess with that formula, this pandemic-shortened, injury-ravaged one would be a prime candidate.
And yet, after Utah’s 117-111 win over the Clippers on Thursday night, the West’s top two seeds are on a collision course for the conference finals after all, doubters be darned. Both the Jazz and the Suns are up 2-0 in the conference semifinals. As it turns out, the conference’s two best regular-season teams are its two best playoff teams, too—imagine that.
Utah has received surprisingly scant attention for a no. 1 seed, but with every win—the count now totals six in a row—the team’s championship bona fides become harder to ignore. Memphis’s feisty young squad made the Jazz briefly sweat in the first round, but Utah still advanced after five games, the fewest for any Western winner—and won all four games with Donovan Mitchell in the lineup.
Now locked in a series against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Mitchell has been the best scorer on the floor through two games in their second-round series. He scored 45 points in Game 1 and added 37 in Game 2 on Thursday, including 27 in a showcase first half, in which Mitchell sank 11 of 16 shots, including five 3-pointers.
Since the start of last postseason, Mitchell has now played 13 playoff games and averaged 34.6 points. In the past 20 postseasons, LeBron James is the only player with a higher-scoring span.
The Clippers haven’t come close to finding an answer for Mitchell’s shotmaking so far. Reggie Jackson is not the answer, nor are big men Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins strapping on skates trying to defend Mitchell after a simple screen and switch. Leonard has spent little time guarding Mitchell in this series—perhaps the obvious adjustment now for coach Tyronn Lue back in Los Angeles, following the model he used to slow Luka Doncic’s Mavericks in Round 1.
In Game 2, the Clippers flummoxed the Jazz for a while with a third-quarter zone, which tricked the home team into extra isolation possessions and halted the activity that has characterized Utah’s offensive machine all year. “We’ve got to move the ball more,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of the zone during his between-quarters interview on ESPN. “The ball’s sticking too much.”
So in the fourth quarter, after the Clippers, led by Jackson (a team-high 29 points) of all people, fought their way back from a deficit that had once reached 21 points, the Jazz showed why they’re a legitimate contender this postseason: They’re more than just Mitchell, even if he is their brightest offensive star.
In addition to Mitchell’s 37 points, Jordan Clarkson scored 24 on 15 shots off the bench; Bojan Bogdanovic nailed a trio of 3-pointers and defended Leonard with surprising aplomb; Rudy Gobert grabbed 20 rebounds and fully walled off the paint, a fitting performance on the night he received his third Defensive Player of the Year trophy. And down the stretch, Joe Ingles was Utah’s most important player, seizing the reins as the team’s lead creator with Mike Conley injured. After the Clippers took a 101-99 lead halfway through the fourth, Ingles reentered the game and scored or assisted on 11 points in just more than three minutes, boosting the Jazz to a 14-2 run that sealed the game.
Conley’s absence undoubtedly hurts the Jazz, who miss his creative spark and stout backcourt defense. But even in his stead, Utah’s roster goes eight deep in solid postseason players—similar, incidentally, to Phoenix’s, as both top Western seeds are confident in their rotations and don’t have to rely on any shaky players game to game. (See, for a contrast, the Clippers, who completely switched their rotation in Game 2, starting Zubac, playing Patrick Beverley 21 minutes, and restricting Terance Mann to just one.)
Moreover, in a matchup of two of the most prolific 3-point-shooting teams in the league, Utah is decisively winning the battle beyond the arc. The Jazz made 20 of 39 3-pointers Thursday (51 percent), while the Clippers hit just 11 of 30 (37 percent). The percentage difference in one game might not be significant—but the sheer volume matters.
In the regular season, the Jazz surrendered the fewest made 3s per game, as they allowed both the second-fewest 3-point attempts and the second-lowest 3-point percentage for any defense, per Cleaning the Glass. The Clippers might have hit 41 percent of their 3s as a team this season, but Utah’s defense, from Gobert outward, is built to stymie that sort of directed assault.
With two wins in as many games, Utah’s chances of reaching the Western finals have ticked up to 86 percent, per The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine. Phoenix’s are even higher, at 93 percent, because of the large gap in team quality between the Suns and the Murray-less Nuggets. Combine those probabilities, and the two overlooked small-market teams have an astonishing 80 percent chance to meet in the conference finals.
If that four-in-five chance comes to pass, after all the Sturm und Drang about soft favorites and threatening low seeds in the West, then Utah and Phoenix will help reaffirm the importance of the regular season in the face of much doubt. Even in the superteam era, there is still plenty of value in consistent wins over the course of 72 or 82 games. It’s hard to fake that kind of quality—and as these playoffs have demonstrated, with the latest evidence coming Thursday night, the Jazz and Suns are definitely, indisputably for real.