LOS ANGELES – With Wednesday night’s 115-95 win over the Sacramento Kings, the Los Angeles Clippers earned home-court advantage for Round 1 of the NBA Western Conference playoffs.
The Clippers and Jazz finished the season with identical 51-31 records, but because Los Angeles won its season series against Utah 3-1, the Clippers own the tiebreaker.
The fourth-seeded Clippers are riding a seven-game winning streak into the playoffs, while the fifth-seeded Jazz are coming off back-to-back wins over the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs.
This is the fourth consecutive season the Clippers will have home-court advantage in the first round. The team has won two of the previous three series, most recently in a 4-3 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in 2014-15.
The Jazz have missed the playoffs each of the last four years. The last time Utah made the postseason was the 2011-12 season, when they were swept by the Spurs in the first round.
These two teams don’t have much history playing each other in the playoffs. The last time they met was 20 years ago, in 1997, when Utah swept Los Angeles 3-0 back when teams played only five games in the first round.
“I think we’ve played them six times, maybe, including the preseason, so we’d better be comfortable with them,” Blake Griffin said after Wednesday’s game of the team’s comfort level in playing the Jazz. “We’re about to get real comfortable with them.”
The series starts Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Staples Center.
In four regular-season games against the Jazz, the Clippers won three and allowed Utah only 89 points per game. The Jazz scored under 80 twice.
The Clippers, however, averaged 98 points over the four games, but scored under 90 in two of them. For context, the Clippers averaged 108.7 points in the regular season.
The dip in offense possibly points to Utah’s turtle-versus-hare approach to basketball. The Jazz rank last in the NBA in pace, averaging 93.6 possessions per 48 minutes, according to ESPN.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said Utah can either score quickly or take 23 seconds to shoot the ball. So his team will have to be ready to play at different speeds throughout the course of a game.
“We have to be ready to grind it out,” Rivers said. “We want to play at our pace, and I would say in a couple games, that’s gonna happen. But in a couple games, it may not happen and we still have to try to win that way, too. So we just have to be ready for whatever is presented.”
The matchup to watch in this series is likely between the two centers, DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers and Rudy Gobert of the Jazz. The big men are the focal points on defense for both teams, and provide plenty of offensive punch as well with them getting open on rolls to the rim or receiving drop-off passes off dribble penetration.
Jordan averaged 13.8 rebounds and 1.65 blocks per game in the regular season, while Gobert averaged 12.8 rebounds and led the league in blocks with 2.64 per game. Practically all of their scoring opportunities come in the restricted area.
Rivers suggested that the two players were almost like mirror images of each other.
“He’s DJ in a lot of ways,” Rivers said of Gobert. “They’re very similar. They’re both dominant defensively and they both cause havoc offensively that you don’t see with the roles to the basket. (Gobert) is gonna be a key figure in this playoff series. We’re gonna have to do a good job on him.”
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE
Griffin said the key to the series against the Jazz is defense. And if the games between the two teams during the regular season are any indication, the Clippers have fared well on that end of the floor against the Jazz.
But Utah is no slouch on that side of the ball. The Jazz rank third in the NBA in defense efficiency, allowing just 102.7 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN. The Clippers rank 13th in that metric at 105.8.
The two teams essentially swap spots when looking at offensive efficiency. The Clippers are fourth in the league at 110.3, while the Jazz are 12th at 107.4.
Paul Pierce isn’t worried about how the Clippers will play on offense against the Jazz.
“The biggest thing for us is gonna be our consistency with the defense and rebounding,” Pierce said. “We know we could score with pretty much anybody in the league. But it’s gonna be how well we consistently defend, keep teams out of transition, keep our turnovers down and rebound the ball.”
The Clippers and Jazz are evenly matched statistically speaking, and both teams will enter their first-round series with all of their key players available. Austin Rivers expects to return from his hamstring injury in either Game 3 or 4.
The Jazz should win at least one game at home, where they boasted a 29-12 record during the regular season. But the playoff experience on the Clippers’ roster, plus their bevy of offensive weapons, should be the deciding factor.
Clippers in 5.