Oct 30, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson (33) in the second half of the game at Staples Center. Clippers won 88-75. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Utah Jazz will face off against the Los Angeles Clippers tonight in what will be a battle for the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
The Utah Jazz have enjoyed being securely in the fourth seed in the West for just over a week and it’s been a pretty good feeling. After taking full custody of the spot, the Jazz were flying high and rolled to two of their most dominant performances of the season against the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans.
However, that feeling quickly faded as Utah has now dropped two straight games, first to the Dallas Mavericks and then to the Boston Celtics. The former saw them fall after blowing a big lead and the latter was a wire-to-wire loss in which they never even seemed to have a chance. While both were different, they were about the two worst kinds of losses you can have.
Meanwhile, the former fourth place Los Angeles Clippers who had their spot taken by the Jazz have played well enough to win two straight and remain right within striking distance of Utah as they currently sit just a half-game back.
And of course as fate would have it, they will be coming into Salt Lake City tonight to try to retake what was once theirs.
The Clippers are shorthanded with Chris Paul recovering from a recent thumb surgery, but they’re still stocked with All-Star level talent in the likes of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan while featuring solid role players such as JJ Redick and Jazz killer Jamal Crawford.
And you can bet that they’ll know exactly what’s at stake when they take on the Jazz in tonight’s contest and will be prepared to fire on all cylinders.
That doesn’t bode well for the Jazz who have greatly struggled against winning teams, particularly in the Western Conference. Against teams with a winning record in the West, the Jazz are currently just 4-9 and to find their last win against such a squad, you have to go back almost two months to Utah’s 82-73 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on December 18th.
And while LA isn’t nearly as threatening without Chris Paul, they’re still a solid team, the like of which has give the Jazz real problems of late. Not to mention, as I brought up in my week preview piece from last night, the Jazz are just 2-16 against the Clippers since the 2011-12 season, so that’s a discouraging figure as well.
Therefore, if Utah hopes to keep the Clippers at bay and maintain a hold of the fourth seed in the West, it will be absolutely vital that they perform well in the following areas.
Oct 30, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) and Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) battle under the basket in the second half of the game at Staples Center. Clippers won 88-75. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Key Match-up – Derrick Favors and Blake Griffin
In the latest edition of “Which Jazz Player is Currently Struggling?” (award winning game show idea, anyone?) Derrick Favors is back in the lead.
After apparently turning the corner in the game against Atlanta with his best performance of the season of 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting and 10 rebounds, then following it up with a modest but solid 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting night against New Orleans, the once daunting Jazz big man went MIA in both of Utah’s latest losses as he has done for much of the season.
Favors scored just six points in each of those two defeats on a combined 5-of-14 shooting. One of Utah’s problems all season long has been their inability to get more than a few guys at a time to have a big night, and Favors has more often than not been one of the underperforming culprits.
Derrick Favors on his 20-point, 10-rebound performance: "It just felt good to finally feel like myself for once this season." pic.twitter.com/DJF4hDcnbr
Nevertheless, if the Jazz are to have any hope of winning whatsoever, he will need to show up big time against Blake Griffin and the Clippers. With Paul sidelined, the lion’s share of the offensive responsibilities has fallen on Blake Griffin and he has come through exceptionally well.
Although he’s averaging a solid 21.9 points on the year, in his last six games he has put up an even more impressive 26.8 points per contest.
So not only will Favors have to come in and be strong defensively, but Utah will need some offensive production out of him to help wear Griffin down and balance out the scoring he’ll most certainly put up. Griffin is the kind of guy who can be slowed but not easily stopped so while outdueling him might be too much to ask, Favors should at least try to match wits with LA’s prolific big man.
Otherwise, the Jazz could be in for yet another long night against the Los Angeles Clippers, much like they were in the teams’ first meeting back in October.
Feb 11, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) shoots the ball against Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the second half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Boston won 112-104. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Key Stat – Three-Point Percentage
The Clippers are currently sixth in the league in points per game and their high-octane offense is largely the result of their incredible three-point shooting. LA ranks fourth in the league from behind the arc at 38 percent and in wins this season they’re shooting over 40 percent.
Therefore it will be absolutely critical that the Jazz control the perimeter and not allow the Clippers to get hot from deep. With sharpshooters including JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and surprisingly even Marreese Speights who’s shooting 40.4 percent from three so far this year, the Jazz will likely have their work cut out for them.
Not to mention, Utah was pathetic from three in their latest contest against Boston finishing the game just 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) from deep. The Jazz are beginning to have quite a stark difference in three-point percentage in wins as losses as they are shooting 37.9 percent in victories compared to just 34.2 percent in defeats.
Thus it’s likely that their performance from behind the three-point line will end up determining their fate. The Jazz are currently 12th in the league in three-point percentage so LA clearly has an advantage in that area that if left unchecked will likely be Utah’s undoing.
Oct 30, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) fouls Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) in the first half of the game at Staples Center. Clippers won 88-75. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Key Performer – Rudy Gobert
Typically when I select the key performer, I like to look for which Jazz player enjoys a key positional advantage against the opposing team due to a lackluster player, injuries, etc. However, in the case of tomorrow’s game, that certainly won’t be the case as Rudy Gobert will be matched up against the Clippers’ lone All-Star this season in DeAndre Jordan.
But that just so happens to be the very reason why I’m giving Rudy Gobert the nod.
It’s no secret that many people (himself included) felt that Gobert was deserving of an All-Star selection. He’s been absolutely incredible on both ends of the floor this season and is among the best in the league in several statistical categories. He’s the anchor of Utah’s defense and an absolutely vital piece to their success.
Thus it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Rudy Gobert anxious to get out there with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove against the guy who stands out the most as the one that was picked over him as a 2017 NBA All-Star.
If Gobert can come out with high energy, laser focus and a determination to bring it to DeAndre Jordan and prove that DJ’s All-Star selection really should have gone to the Stifle Tower, then there’s no question in my mind that he can be Utah’s key performer tonight.
Dec 7, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; The LA Clippers mascot Chuck celebrates during the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Prediction – Clippers 103, Jazz 97
Despite the injury to Chris Paul, the game being played on Utah’s home court and Rudy Gobert’s probable statement performance, I’m still not feeling confident in a Jazz win. Part of that has to do with their poor play against good teams as well as their two most recent losses, but more than that, I simply am not confident that Utah can come through in the first two key areas that I mentioned.
Favors once again looks like a shell of his former self and one good game out of five or so simply isn’t going to get it done. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Griffin go off for a big night, especially considering that neither of Utah’s power forwards behind Favors, Trey Lyles nor Boris Diaw, will have any chance of slowing him down either.
And in terms of three-point shooting, I worry that the Clippers are simply too good while the Jazz have been quite frankly too inconsistent. Therefore, as I predicted in my week outlook piece, I’m going to pin the Clippers as six-point winners in tonight’s bout.
I truly hope that I am wrong and that with a win, rather than lose the fourth seed the Jazz will instead take a 1.5-game lead once again. The Clippers are definitely beatable especially without Chris Paul so there’s no question that this game could go the other way if Utah is able to play more like they did early last week.
However, their trend against Western Conference playoff foes hasn’t been great and especially considering the trouble the Jazz have had in recent contests against LA, I’m feeling less than optimistic about their chances in tonight’s contest. As much as it pains me to say it, I have a hunch that, at least for now, today will be the Jazz’s last day in the four-spot.