For what felt like the first time all postseason, the LA Clippers were on the opposite end of a “punch in the mouth” first quarter scenario, setting the tone against the Utah Jazz in the opening frame of Game 4 and eventually walking away with a 118-104 victory that tied the Conference Semifinals at 2-2.
Sure, they held the Jazz to just 18 points in the first quarter of Game 1 of their series, but that low figure was largely a result of an anomalous stretch where the Jazz didn’t make a field goal for nearly nine straight minutes of play despite quite a few open looks.
The first quarter of Game 4, on the other hand, felt as though LA found something defensively. They held the Jazz to just 13 points, their lowest point total of any quarter throughout the series. The Clippers were flying around the court, their switching and rotations in perfect sync. The length of their small-ball lineup, consisting of four huge wing defenders and a bit of a blind spot in Reggie Jackson, was swarming Donovan Mitchell, and the All-Star’s absurd off-the-dribble three-point shooting finally seemed as though it was falling back to Earth (though he did catch fire in the second quarter and would finish the game with 37 points). Clippers Head Coach Tyronn Lue made it a point of emphasis before the game to slow Mitchell in single coverage, whether it be switching or fighting over screens, in order to limit swing passes to open Jazz shooters. At times, it seemed like there were six Clippers on the floor.
The Jazz did not walk away from the punch in the mouth without a counter; they outscored LA 60-50 in the second half, but the Clippers’ first-half damage proved too great for Utah to overcome. Beyond their defensive prowess in the opening quarter, LA finally received an inevitable offensive contribution from a key role player.
Marcus Morris finally finds his rhythm
As was the case in the Clippers’ First Round series against the Mavericks, it has been feast or famine with Marcus Morris Sr. in terms of his three-point shooting against the Jazz. Well, actually, prior to Game 4, it had been all famine. LA’s small-ball center connected on just one of his 16 three-point attempts through three games, so the 47.3% regular-season shooter was due for a huge regression to the mean at some point.
The regression came all at once in the first half of Game 4. He scored 22 of his 24 points in the first two quarters, knocking down all five of his three-point attempts. Were these looks any different from the ones he was getting in Games 1-3? Not particularly. Morris is the definition of a streaky shooter—when he’s hot, he’s scorching, and when he’s cold, he might as well be frozen in carbonite. Per Lucas Hann of 213 Hoops, Morris has now shot between 25.01% and 49.99% from three just 7 times in his 56 career playoff games. He's been 50% or higher 29 times and 25% or lower 20 times. Essentially, he doesn’t reach his averages through consistency; instead, he bounces from either end of the spectrum.
Morris’ shooting is a crucial variable for the Clippers moving forward. Whether he can make Rudy Gobert pay for sagging off of him in the corner in favor of protecting the rim is imperative for LA’s offense.
“You make some, you miss some,” Morris said postgame. “You know, it's game-by-game. It's the playoffs. I'm just staying in the moment trying to be there for my team. It's basketball, man. You're going to get hot and you're going to get some shots. But it's about staying level and not getting too down on yourself and just continue to go forward.”
When asked what change in circumstance might’ve been the cause of Morris’ shift in shooting polarity, Lue accredited a certain audience member at Staples Center.
“His brother was here,” Lue joked, referring to Morris’ twin brother and LA Laker Markieff, who was seen in the stands cheering on his sibling. “We’re going to take him to Utah with us, too.”
No, won't be coming to Utah,” Morris refuted. “I don't know if anybody wants to go to Utah. He's going to stick it out here in L.A. and we'll see him when we come back.”
A Series of health
Kawhi Leonard’s right knee collided with Jazz wing Joe Ingles midway through the fourth quarter of Game 4, and the Clippers’ All-Star (who had yet another stellar offensive performance, dropping 31 points in the win) was seen wincing before sitting out the final 4:35 of the game, despite a late Jazz push that felt a bit too close for comfort. Leonard said he’d “be good” during his postgame interview, and Lue said “we’ll know more after the game,” but the fact that Leonard sat is a bit concerning.
Having said that, Sports Illustrated’s Clippers insider Farbod Esnaashari reported early Tuesday morning that “Leonard's knee is all good, and he was sitting out in the final four minutes out of precaution.” It seems as though Leonard will have no setbacks going into Game 5, but Leonard is far from the only star battling injuries in this series.
In Game 3, Jazz star Donovan Mitchell reaggravated the right ankle injury that kept him out of Game 1 of Utah’s First Round series against the Memphis Grizzlies. The All-Star seemed a bit off for portions of Game 4; though he finished the game with 37 points, he went just 9-26 from the field. Much of the credit for this inefficiency should be given to the Clippers’ locked-in defense and the fact that Utah relies so heavily on him to create, but it also seemed that Mitchell was missing a bit of the explosive first step that he used to split the pick-and-roll so often in Games 1-3.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s backcourt mate Mike Conley Jr. has still not made an appearance in this series, as he continues to nurse a hamstring injury that he suffered in the previous round against Memphis. With the series now whittled down to a best-of-three, the Jazz cannot afford to be cautious with the All-Star, particularly with Mitchell hobbled as well. Perhaps Conley will make his series debut in Game 5. This series may very well come down to which team is healthier through the final three contests.
Kawhi dunks Favors into oblivion
Yes, this single play deserves its own section. In fact, it deserves its own oral history, complete with firsthand accounts from fans in the arena who received the unique pleasure of witnessing a gruesome, thoughtless murder on a basketball court.
If Leonard was the one committing the murder, then Royce O’neale shoud be considered an accessory before the fact. The Jazz wing has tried his best to contain Leonard on the perimeter throughout this series, but on this particular play, he allowed The Claw to turn the corner, giving him a runway to the rim and subjecting his teammate Derrick Favors to sheer pain.
Credit to Favors—he made the admirable and correct basketball play. O’neale was blown by, and it’s his job as the center to help at the rim. He went vertical, both arms directly in the air.
And Leonard just soared over the top of him.
His wingspan, enormous hands and other-worldy athleticism were all showcased within the sledgehammer dunk. Favors bounced off of him as if Leonard were surrounded by a forcefield. “A major Kawhi-light,” TNT announcer Ian Eagle perfectly surmised. It might’ve been Leonard’s greatest play as a Clipper when factoring in the playoff stage on which it took place.
76ers star Joel Embiid witnessed the dunk during his postgame media availability, and his reaction summarized all of NBA fandom:
Leonard said postgame that though he does not “see the reaction of what's on the web or social media or whatever," (a classic Leonard response if there ever was one), his teammate Ivica Zubac did show him Embiid’s reaction after the game. It remains unclear if the clip provoked a Kawhi chuckle.
The Clippers will now head back to Utah for a pivotal Game 5. They’ve once again weathered an 0-2 storm and seem to be holding the majority of the momentum in the series despite Utah’s second-half bounceback. The series is far from over, but Lue’s rotations have been solidified, and Paul George’s jump shot seems to have returned (back-to-back 31-point performances for him in the last two games).
Game 5 tips off on Wednesday at 7 p.m.