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The Clippers Find a Formula That Works Without Kawhi—for Now

Los Angeles ended a terrible day on a surprisingly promising note, finding a way to beat Utah in Game 5 without Leonard, and discovering a potential path forward

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

The Clippers woke up Wednesday to ridiculously rotten news: Kawhi Leonard would miss Game 5 of their second-round series against the Jazz, and probably more time beyond. The words “ACL injury” don’t often correlate with a quick recovery.

But they went to bed much happier, after an impressive short-handed road win in Game 5, 119-111, which gave the Clippers a 3-2 series lead and chance to clinch at home Friday night.

How did the Clippers overcome the absence of their best player, who had already authored a number of masterpieces in crucial games this postseason? They boast a considerably lower ceiling without Leonard; unless he returns, this team probably won’t win the first title in franchise history. Yet with a defined rotation and proven system in place, the Clippers still have enough ability to stretch Utah—both metaphorically, to the brink, and literally, across the entire expanse of the offensive end of the floor.

That strategy is simple enough, as a continuation of the small-ball trend that has dominated the past half-decade of the NBA playoffs. With Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, and Nicolas Batum, the Clippers still have four members of the small-ball lineup they used to such great effect against the Jazz in victories in games 3 and 4.

Replacing Leonard with a platoon of Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, and Patrick Beverley isn’t ideal, of course—but the system still stands, exerting the same pressures on Utah’s base defense as it did over the weekend. In Game 5, Rudy Gobert still found himself dragged out to the corners, where he can have little defensive impact while matched up against the likes of Batum, most often, or even smaller guards like Beverley and Mann.

That setup means plenty of open shots for the Clippers, as long as they’re patient enough to drive and kick a couple times to get Utah in rotation. Important, of course, is that those open shots are now mostly directed toward the Clippers’ less consistent role players, whose performance is critical; what was once a luxury is now a necessity, without Leonard’s 30-plus points per game to buoy the offense. And on Wednesday, Jackson, Morris, and Batum came through, combining to shoot 9-for-18 from distance and score 56 points overall.

In the fourth quarter in particular, Jackson shouldered the load. George, who finished with a game-high 37 points, didn’t make a shot in the quarter until the final two minutes, but Jackson picked up the slack with 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the period, including a couple of contested 3s that stalled Utah’s momentum as the Jazz tried to mount a comeback.

That fourth-quarter trade-off shouldn’t sell George short, however, as the Clippers’ costar was nothing short of magnificent throughout the game. “Playoff P” showed up—an uncertain outcome given his postseason track record, but, again, a necessity without Leonard to lead the way. George scored his 37 points on just 22 shots, adding five assists and a playoff-career-high 16 rebounds in the Clippers’ small lineups.

Utah’s offense was not nearly so egalitarian. In part, the Jazz sputtered down the stretch because the NBA is a make-or-miss league: They looked great in the first half, when they sank 17 3-pointers, and choppy in the second, when they shot 3-for-24 from distance.

The team’s issue, however, wasn’t just the missed shots, but the quality of looks and a lack of movement on offense. Only 16 of Utah’s 54 3-point attempts were wide open, per NBA Advanced Stats, continuing a worrying trend for the Jazz in this series: They’re not getting nearly the space to shoot as they had during the regular season or against Memphis in the first round.

Utah’s Wide-open 3-Pointers

Time Frame Proportion of Total Attempts
Time Frame Proportion of Total Attempts
Regular Season 49%
First Round 48%
Second Round 33%

Moreover, the Jazz assisted on only 15 of 36 made shots Wednesday, for a 42 percent assist rate—one of their lowest marks of the season. Utah is now 2-6 when sporting a rate that low, counting both regular season and playoffs, versus 56-18 when assisting on a higher percentage of makes.

Yet to be fair to Quin Snyder’s club, Utah’s offense is compromised by a couple of key injuries of its own. Mike Conley has missed all five games in this series, and Mitchell is clearly less than 100 percent with an ankle injury. He lacked his usual burst in Game 5 and jacked most of his shots from beyond the arc, with a shot distribution frighteningly similar to James Harden’s from when the injured Nets guard labored through his own Game 5 on Tuesday.

Shot Distribution for Ailing Stars in Game 5s

Shot Type James Harden Donovan Mitchell
Shot Type James Harden Donovan Mitchell
2-Point Attempts 2 5
3-Point Attempts 8 14
Free Throw Attempts 3 6

As Harden struggled to push toward the rim, 80 percent of his shot attempts came from long distance, and Mitchell nearly matched him with a 74 percent figure Wednesday. That’s by far the highest single-game mark of Mitchell’s playoff career.

“I mean, it fucking sucks. I ain’t got nothing else to say,” Mitchell opined about his injury after the game. “For most of my life, I’ve been able to push by, explode by, and jump through people or over people, and for the first time in my career, I’ve had to play on the floor.”

Without Conley, and with an ailing Mitchell stuck below the rim, the Jazz were left relying on a whole lot of Royce O’Neale, who was often left open when the Clippers trapped or sent hard doubles at Mitchell. The Clippers will live with O’Neale trying to create off the dribble. Bojan Bogdanovic scored a team-high 32 points and made nine 3-pointers, but he didn’t record a single assist; ditto for Jordan Clarkson, with 15 points but zero assists off the bench. Utah’s injury ripples mean an untenable split between the team’s scorers and creators.

The Jazz must fix that imbalance if they want to avoid an early playoff exit—preferably with better health from their All-Star backcourt, but that might be wishful thinking in this postseason of pain. At the very least, they can try to fix some of the more manageable issues, such as switching their strategy against the small lineup when Gobert rests.

Once again in Game 5, the Jazz were blitzed when Derrick Favors was on the floor, losing those six minutes by seven points to bring his series total to minus-37 in 63 minutes. Snyder responded by playing Gobert more in the second half Wednesday (23 minutes, versus 19 in the first), and he’ll likely have to stretch his star center even more. And when Gobert sits, the Jazz should match the Clippers wing for wing.

Yet as the Jazz tweak their offense back toward movement in lieu of isolations, and as they extend their stars’ minutes, there’s no reason to full-on panic. Three playoff series now stand 3-2, and all three trailing teams can certainly come back after crushing Game 5 defeats. The Jazz are no exception: The Clippers now have the advantage even without Leonard, but this series really might come down to whether Batum and Jackson can hit their corner 3s.

After all, the Clippers are still one win away from the conference finals. This story hasn’t ended so great for them before, either.