It’s not quite this simple, but if you wanted a tidy encapsulation of why the Clippers’ brain trust moved heaven, earth, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and every draft pick that wasn’t nailed down to pull off their daring double play two summers ago, you could do worse than this sequence from early in the Clips’ series-leveling Game 4 win over the Jazz on Monday:
Kawhi Leonard guards Donovan Mitchell. That’s a pretty good place to start: checking the opponent’s best offensive player with a larger, longer, former Defensive Player of the Year. Rather than try to attack Kawhi head-on, Mitchell gets off the ball early, slinging it across the court to Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s met by Paul George—another large, long, multi-time All-Defensive Team selection. George stays step for step with him on the drive, slinks back in front of him as he elevates for his shot, contests, and forces a miss.
Once the rebound is collected, George—not a point guard by any traditional definition, but working on it—brings the ball across half court. He sees Leonard with a mismatch—a deep seal in the paint on Mitchell—and throws the lob entry pass. Leonard corrals it and lays it in. The Jazz, down 10-2 before they’ve even gotten a sweat in, call timeout to regroup and discuss how best to deal with an opponent who can throw two of the league’s best big wings at you on every possession.
Leonard and George weren’t the only reasons the Clippers beat the Jazz 118-104 on Monday to knot their second-round series at 2-2. After a frigid start from 3-point range in this series, Marcus Morris Sr. heated up in a hurry, knocking down his first five looks from long distance on his way to 22 first-half points. Ty Lue’s ongoing rotational shuffle—beat it, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins; welcome back, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, and Patrick Beverley!—turned up some positive second-unit contributions, too. But as much as the postseason is about the never-ending quest for tactical supremacy, the perpetual search for magic on the margins, it’s primarily about whether or not your stars are performing like the elite entities you need them to be.
Through the first two games against Utah, the Clippers’ centerpieces weren’t. Leonard was averaging a fine-but-not-excellent 22 points per game; George was just 12-for-35 from the floor; Mitchell was running rampant, unchecked. When the scene shifted to Staples Center, though, so too did the balance of power. In Game 3, Kawhi and PG combined for 65 points to pace a 26-point rout. In Game 4, they teamed up for 62 more, controlling the game on both ends to turn the race to join Phoenix in the Western Conference finals into a three-game sprint.
Prior to the start of this series, Leonard and George had both scored 30 or more points in the same game a mere four times during their first 100 regular- and postseason contests together. They’ve now done it in back-to-back games—making them just the fifth duo in the past 45 years to do so in the postseason—to fuel a rampaging Clippers offense that scored a blistering 133.7 points per 100 possessions across games 3 and 4.
This was the basic, elemental principle on which this iteration of the Clippers was founded: that Kawhi and PG can be skeleton keys who give the team a chance to both score on and credibly defend virtually every kind of postseason opponent. That principle hasn’t exactly borne out flawlessly in practice, for a few different reasons: injuries, a global pandemic, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Luka Doncic, a decades-old curse unceasingly haunting the league’s most moribund franchise, etc. Nights like Monday, though, offer a reminder of what it can look like when things go according to Steve Ballmer’s grand plan—when we see the Clippers we’d hoped we would, a team capable of evolving from theoretical contender to tangible one.
That team’s full of versatile, multifaceted, dangerous players, the kind who amplify one another en route to shutting down an opposing offense for extended periods while also relentlessly attacking the rim and drilling 3s. The reinsertion of Nicolas Batum into the starting lineup allows the Clips to become that team; Lue’s return to small-ball after a brief Game 2 dalliance with Ivica Zubac in the first five continued to pay dividends on Monday. On the offensive end, going to a five-out attack with viable shooters everywhere helped minimize the impact of Rudy Gobert, the reigning three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who locks down the interior but doesn’t fare quite as well when tasked with tracking shooters 25 feet out:
Look at what the small lineup from the Clippers is doing to Rudy Gobert. This is good multiple efforts but he has to show, recover to the pop. Help on PG's drive, recover to the pop. Help on Jackson's drive, wide open 3. pic.twitter.com/4tCGo6lK5q— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 15, 2021
Going small proved vital on the defensive end, too. With Batum and Morris up front, Leonard and George on the wings, and Reggie Jackson at the point of attack, L.A. was able to switch assignments comfortably, walling off dribble penetration, blocking off passing lanes and closing out on shooters. With Mike Conley again sidelined by a right hamstring strain, Mitchell was the only Jazz starter with a real shot at consistently beating his man off the dribble. But Mitchell looked a bit limited in the early going by the ankle injury he aggravated in Game 3, and Utah opened the game lacking the boost necessary to punch through the first line of defense, collapse the coverage, get L.A. in rotation, and generate the kind of open 3-point looks it typically feasts on.
The result: Utah’s freewheeling and movement-heavy offense devolved into a series of isolations, and things got ugly. The Jazz shot just 6-for-21 from the floor with six turnovers in the first quarter; they scored only 13 points, their worst quarter of the season, and faced a 17-point deficit after 12 minutes. The Clippers piled it on, taking a 51-22 lead with 5:20 to go in the first half. While Utah would eventually get its offense unstuck, L.A. led by double digits for nearly the entire game, and has now kept the Jazz at arm’s length for the better part of six and a half quarters.
That’s what can happen when George plays as aggressively as he has the past two games, repeatedly slicing through the Jazz defense in the pick-and-roll to attack the basket—PG’s treating backup center Derrick Favors, in particular, like he’s got a bull’s-eye painted on his chest—and when Leonard decides to sprinkle some ferocious rim attacks of his own in amid all those line-drive jumpers:
All’s not lost for the Jazz. After going down 0-2 again, all the Clips did was hold serve; unlike the first round against the Mavs, though, if this series goes the distance, Utah will get games 5 and 7 at home. Even with all the extra defensive attention the Clippers are sending his way, and even after seeming to tweak his ailing ankle when crashing to the floor following a first-quarter layup, Mitchell seemed to get comfortable with generating his own looks, scoring 33 of his 37 points over the final three quarters. As Mitchell goes, so goes Utah’s offense: As dilapidated as they looked in the early going, the Jazz got the drive-and-kick machine humming, scoring at a very strong 128.2 points-per-100 clip from the second quarter on, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Conley’s status looms large. He hasn’t played since straining his hamstring early in Utah’s series-clinching Game 5 victory over Memphis in Round 1; he was listed as questionable for Game 4, but still hasn’t been cleared to return to the lineup. If he’s able to return in the back half of the series, he could provide a massive boost for a Jazz team now wildly over-reliant on Mitchell and the trick-or-treat nature of Jordan Clarkson (22 points on 28 shots over the past two games), and that desperately needs another creator to puncture the Clippers defense. Hamstrings are notoriously fickle, though, and there’s no guarantee that two weeks of rest and treatment will be enough to get him back to full strength before this series ends.
Also looming large: the state of Leonard’s right knee after a collision with Joe Ingles midway through the fourth quarter that left him hobbling, sent him to the bench a minute later, and saw him sit for the final 4:35 of the contest. Kawhi, unsurprisingly, stayed mum on the knock after the game:
Leonard on his knee: "Good. Next question."— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) June 15, 2021
The Clippers had better hope he’s right. Mitchell’s not going to stop coming, Conley might soon rejoin the party, and the Jazz will keep firing away from deep; L.A. needs its stars to play like stars, allowing Morris, Batum, Jackson, Beverley, and the rest to shine in their roles. When Kawhi and PG are equal to that challenge, the Clippers don’t have to be haunted; they can be the ones striking fear into opponents’ hearts. Maybe—in a postseason landscape growing increasingly post-apocalyptic with each twist, turn, and superstar injury—the kind of team that can rise above, bring the grand plan to fruition, and lift the first Larry O’Brien Trophy in franchise history.