Perhaps the Clippers’ penchant for digging themselves into a hole will bite them at some point in the 2021 postseason, but as Monday night once again proved, perhaps no team left in these playoffs is better equipped to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy come July.
The Nets could be on the brink of elimination after Tuesday, with Kyrie Irving’s and James Harden’s returns anything but guaranteed. Neither the Bucks nor the 76ers are proven playoff commodities. As for the Western Conference, the Suns are no juggernaut, and the Jazz will now return to Utah following a 118–104 defeat on Monday night. The Clippers seem to take entire nights off defensively. Kawhi Leonard’s costar hasn’t exactly lived up to his Playoff P nickname. But in an imperfect playoff field, the Clippers could be the team that wins the decade’s first non-bubble championship. Monday night certainly provided a dose of confidence in that regard.
The Clippers are not necessarily a Brooklynesque juggernaut in a traditional sense, though head coach Tyronn Lue has a much deeper rotation at his disposal than he did with the 2018 Cavaliers. Paul George finished third in the MVP voting just 24 months ago. Marcus Morris is a quality scoring option, even with some questionable shot selection. Your mileage on Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley can rightfully vary, though on the other hand, Los Angeles's deep collection of wings allows Leonard to handle an increased playmaking load. This roster is deep, flexible and physical, even when they go small. Each dismissal of Los Angeles as a championship contender ignores the talent on hand.
There are, of course, imperfections with Leonard's third team. The lack of a true impact point guard was a significant reason behind last year’s bubble exit, and it’s not as though the addition of Rajon Rondo has alleviated such concerns. The team’s shot selection can suffer when they play a traditional center, with Ivica Zubac’s presence in the paint often leading to a stream of early-shot-clock triples. But when the Clippers’ small-ball unit plays well, few lineups can match its two-way excellence.
Lue opted to forego a traditional center in the starting lineup in Game 4, playing Morris as the nominal five alongside Leonard, George, Jackson and the resurgent Nic Batum. What ensued was a complete blitzing.
The Clippers’ defense held Utah to just 13 points in the first quarter, and Donovan Mitchell finished the night with 37 points on 26 shots as his supporting cast struggled. Lue mixed coverages throughout the evening, sometimes trapping Mitchell while opting for a switch in advantageous situations. Mitchell has emerged as an elite isolation scorer and playmaker. Allowing him to feast on switch after switch is a recipe for disaster. Yet trapping him ad nauseam is what really kickstarts Utah’s offense. The Jazz thrive when the ball is pinging around the perimeter, scrambling defenses as Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanović and Jordan Clarkson rain threes. Finding a way to defend the NBA’s No. 2 offense is no easy task. But the small-ball Clippers were able to both hound Mitchell and recover onto Utah’s shooters. Their performance Monday should serve as a blueprint for the rest of the series.
Not to slight Doc Rivers, but Lue could very well serve as the missing piece for Los Angeles as it seeks redemption from last year’s collapse. Lue morphed a relatively dismal defense into a champion in 2016, holding the 73-win Warriors to just 89 points in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He helped stitch together a pair of Eastern Conference champions in the two subsequent years, becoming a true partner with LeBron James in the process. Lue quickly emerged as one of the game’s brightest assistants as he worked with Boston early in the last decade. Nearly 10 years later, he remains a true tactician.
Knowing which version of the Clippers you’ll get each night is a frustrating task. They limp out of the gate then look like world-beaters, build big leads before going into a shell. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the talent on the roster and the steady hand leading the way. George waltzed his way to 30 points and nine rebounds Monday, hitting four threes in the process. Leonard is currently battling Kevin Durant for the title of Best Player Alive, and he's tallied 65 points on 53 percent shooting over the last two games. We envisioned this duo going toe-to-toe with James and Anthony Davis in at least one of the last two playoffs. That didn’t come to fruition. But back-to-back Los Angeles champions? It’s certainly in play after Monday’s dominant Game 4 win.
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