The LA Clippers earned their biggest win of the season so far, slaying the winningest team in the NBA in the Utah Jazz on Friday night by a narrow margin of 116-112. Poor late game execution from the Clippers and ridiculous shot-making by Jazz Star Donovan Mitchell caused the game to nearly slip through LA's grasp in the final minutes.
LA Struggles in the Clutch
While the game was more or less a standstill after three quarters, the Clippers outplayed the Jazz for the majority of the fourth quarter after Head Coach Tyronn Lue elected to go small with Marcus Morris Sr. inserted at center. This move was risky, as it meant the Clippers were giving up a ton of size to Rudy Gobert on the defensive end. But it also meant that, offensively, LA was able to spread Gobert out to the three-point line and give penetrators like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George room to drive and kick. The Jazz were forced to collapse to the paint, and snipers like Morris and Patrick Beverley made them pay after the ball was kicked back out. With 2:28 to go, the Clippers led 107-94, and it felt like LA was in complete control.
But Donovan Mitchell had other ideas—he scored 12 of the Jazz’ last 13 points in the final 1:23 of regulation. The Tracy-McGrady-lite performance contained two tough made threes, four made free throws and a fast break layup off of a missed free throw by Leonard. Mitchell and the Jazz refused to die, and the Clippers missed multiple opportunities to end the game emphatically. If Leonard makes that second free throw, or if Paul George does not foul Mitchell on a three-point attempt, or if they execute better defensively out of timeouts, the Clippers might’ve been able to go home ten minutes earlier. Were it not for two clutch offensive rebounds by Leonard over the towering Gobert, the Jazz might’ve even stolen a victory.
The Clippers may have limped away with a win on Friday, but this trouble with late-game execution is becoming a glaring issue that they’re going to have to confront before the playoffs. According to NBA.com, the Clippers are the worst team in the league in clutch minutes (defined as the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points), posting a putrid net rating of -27. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason the Clippers collapse so often late in games. Part of it is probably bad luck and opponents making tough shots like Mitchell did on Friday, but a lot of it is defensive execution—LA gives up a 134 defensive rating in clutch minutes (aslo dead-last). Perhaps they get overconfident, or they’re just tired, but when the postseason rolls around and opposing teams’ seasons are on the line, you can bet they’re not going to surrender until the final buzzer sounds. Four of the five Clippers starters have made All-Defensive teams in their career; they should have no problem locking down and closing teams out when victory is in sight.
Amidst all the late-game drama, it’s easy to forget that this was Paul George’s first game back since he began sitting with a bone edema in one of his right toes back on Feb. 3. The All-Star hopeful missed seven games, and was on a minutes restriction in his return game on Friday. In 27 minutes of action, George posted a solid all-around game of 15 points (6-14 shooting), six rebounds and five assists. George looked competent and aggressive considering the time he’d missed, but his timing felt a bit off at times, and he didn’t seem to fully have his legs under him when his shots fell short.
Morris at center is deadlier than ever
Before the near-collapse at the end of the game, Lue’s move to swap out Serge Ibaka for the smaller Marcus Morris Sr. in the fourth quarter proved effective once again. At one point, the Clippers went on a 13-2 run with Morris in the 5 spot, as the Jazz had no answer for the level of floor spacing that the Clippers achieved. Morris is the second-best three-point shooter in the NBA so far this season, trailing only Joe Harris and shooting a ridiculous 50.5% on five attempts a game. Gobert was forced to stay home on Morris, and no other Jazz player could leave their man either, as Beverley, George, Leonard and Batum are all shooting 37% or better from behind the arc. It’s a truly deadly offensive lineup, particularly when the opposing team does not have a player that can check Leonard one-on-one (very few teams in the league do).
This lineup could be a crucial weapon come playoff time. Players like Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic might be able to exploit the Clippers’ lack of size in this lineup, but there will be moments where they can simply outscore their opponent by going five-out.
Despite all of the clutch struggles, the Clippers should walk away feeling extremely optimistic that they beat the team with the best record in the NBA, snapping Utah’s nine-game win streak and once again proving that they are a true Western Conference contender. If their health maintains and they can resolve their execution issues, the Clippers might be entering their best stretch of the season thus far.
LA will welcome yet another title contender, the Brooklyn Nets, to Staples Center on Sunday at 5 p.m.