The LA Clippers were once again a victim to a superstar performance by Donovan Mitchell, losing Game 2 to his Utah Jazz 117-111 and falling down 0-2 in the Conference Semifinals.
Mitchell picks up where he left off
Mitchell did not match his 45-point total from Game 1, but he was on pace to exceed it in the first half. The All-Star dropped 27 points through the first two quarters, putting his team up by 13 at halftime. LA threw every defensive coverage they could think of at him in pick-and-roll: they began with a drop coverage with Ivica Zubac back in the starting lineup. This gave Mitchell wide open looks from three, and he made the Clippers pay from deep early. When Zubac was subbed out due to foul trouble, LA began switching with their small lineup. Mitchell split the pick-and-roll mid-switch, getting downhill and into the lane. Fighting over the screen? He blew by whoever was on him. Sending two defenders at him and trapping? He made the correct reads, flinging cross-court passes to the open man. It was yet another offensive showcase, and the Clippers entered the locker room after 24 minutes searching for answers.
“We definitely have to limit him out there,” Kawhi Leonard said postgame of Mitchell. “He got [off] to a great start. He got them going. That’s the head of the snake. He’s playing great right now.”
LA resorted to a zone in the second half, which finally slowed Mitchell down and got the ball out of his hands. Still, he finished the game with 37 points on 15-29 shooting (6-12 from deep). This adjustment, combined with a heroic performance from Reggie Jackson (more on him later) led to a 31-17 run by the Clippers to close the third quarter. This momentum carried over into the final frame, and LA briefly took the lead with 6:37 left to play in regulation.
However, as they had been all night, the Clippers were unable to contain Utah from deep down the stretch, and that ultimately made the difference. After Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’neale contributed long range jumpers of their own, a defensive miscommunication left Joe Ingles wide open from deep with three minutes to go, and the Sixth Man runner-up drained a three to put the Jazz up 10 and keep the Clippers at bay (his fourth make in seven attempts). Overall, the Jazz went 20-39 from deep, generating a ton of open looks despite missing their starting point guard in Mike Conley for the second-straight game. Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson went 6-9 off the bench, and Bogdanovic contributed three makes in five tries.
“We know they thrive off drive-and-kicks,” Clippers Head Coach Tyronn Lue said postgame of how the Jazz were able to earn these looks. “Getting into the paint, making plays. We’ve got to do a better job of closing out to their other guys and keeping them under control.”
Reggie gets to play
Reggie Jackson only played 17 minutes in Game 1 before fouling out, and was unable to make much of an impact for LA. However, in Game 2, he was able to play 36 minutes while only getting called for one personal foul.
“Different refs,” Jackson said plainly when asked how he was able to stay on the floor in Game 2. “It was reffed differently, and they allowed me to play.”
Jackson was toeing the line of potentially earning himself a fine from the league office for that comment, but if he does receive a bill, his teammates should offer to pay it for him after the performance he gifted them in Game 2.
He dropped a team-high 29 points on 11-19 shooting, and gave LA a crucial boost in the third quarter when LA might’ve rolled over and died otherwise. The Jazz stretched the lead to 21 at one point, but after two Paul George free throws, Jackson contributed a quick 7-0 run by himself to give the Clippers some life. He had 16 points in the third overall, hitting stepback threes and drawing contact at the basket. In a game where George once again struggled from the field (8-18) and Leonard was unable to take over offensively (just 21 points from him), Jackson gave the Clippers a threat off the dribble (he had some success when Rudy Gobert was switched onto him) and an outside shooter that wasn’t hesitant to let it fly.
“He was great tonight,” Leonard said of Jackson. “They let him play on an island. He stayed aggressive, he got to the paint, he made some big shots. He’s been doing that for us all year.”
The ever-changing rotation
Lue has clearly been doing some experimenting with his roster throughout these last two games against Utah. He played 11 players in Game 1 and 10 in Game 2, and the minutes distribution has been all over the place.
Rajon Rondo was squeezed entirely on Thursday after playing 28 minutes on Tuesday. Terance Mann only played one minute in Game 2, and Lue said after the game that he’s “out of the rotation” right now. Nicolas Batum, who was a staple in the Dallas series, played just 21 minutes in Game 1 and 27 in Game 2 after returning to a bench role in favor of Ivica Zubac. Luke Kennard has re-emerged to hit some much-needed threes, and Lue elected to close Game 2 with him on the floor despite some defensive limitations. Patrick Beverley was given a short leash of just six minutes in Game 1, but was bumped up to 21 minutes in Game 2 (he’s yet to hit a field goal in this series; 0-8 from the field including 0-4 from deep). DeMarcus Cousins was even dusted off for four minutes in Game 1 and 11 in Game 2 (he’s committed five fouls in the combined 15 minutes of action).
Foul trouble for core players has no doubt played a role in this game of musical chairs, but Lue needs to figure out who can and cannot play in this series in order to establish some sort of continuity. Although the Jazz are a befuddling team, Lue has proven his ability to identify a winning formula and stick to it. He’s running out of time with LA down 0-2, but that deficit clearly didn’t faze him last series.
The Clippers will now return home to LA to host what is essentially a must-win game for them. Game 3 tips off on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.