It’s often said in boxing that styles make fights. In the NBA, particularly in the playoffs, those styles are dictated by the talents of a team’s personnel.
The Los Angeles Clippers are well acquainted with who and what make the Utah Jazz play the way they do, and vice versa. These teams have seen each other six times since October—twice in the preseason, four times during the regular season—so there won’t be much mystery between them when they take the court at Staples Center for Game 1 of their first-round series at 7:30 pm PT on Saturday night.
“We better be comfortable with them,” Blake Griffin said. “We’re about to get real comfortable with them.”
Griffin will be key to the Clippers’ pursuit of four wins in seven games against a Jazz squad that likes to grind things out. So, too, will J.J. Redick be critical to opening up the floor for L.A., just as the bench will be indispensable when the starters need a breather.
But of all the matchups to come in this knockdown, drag-out Western Conference brawl, these three figure to dictate which team will survive and advance in the weeks to come.
Chris Paul vs George Hill
For the Clippers, it all begins with Chris Paul. His numbers across five previous playoff appearances in L.A.—20.6 points on 47.8 percent shooting (39.4 percent from three), 8.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals in 36.7 minutes—are eerily similar to Paul’s career stats against George Hill, Utah’s starting point guard: 20.8 points on 47.5 percent shooting (44.6 percent from three), 8.1 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 34.6 minutes.
This will be the first time these two long-time foes go toe-to-toe in the postseason. Paul, for one, isn’t taking his opponent lightly.
“I think George is one of the most underrated players in our league,” he said.
Hill, who averaged 4.1 assists per game this season, has never been one to orchestrate an offense to the extent Paul has and does, though he takes great care of the ball (8.7 turnover ratio) and isn’t one to panic under pressure.
“Some guys you can try to speed up, but George plays with a nice pace, makes open shots, [and] he knows when to find guys,” Paul said.
The Clippers can’t afford to lose track of Hill when he’s off the ball. He’s lethal from behind the three-point line (40.3 percent in 2016-17), whether his shooting window is tight (41.2 percent) or wide open (42.7 percent), per NBA.com.
Nor will he let Paul off easily. At 6’3” with a 6’9” wingspan, Hill is one of the league’s peskiest point guards on defense when healthy.
That’s been a question for him all year and may remain so going into the postseason. Hill missed 33 games during the 2016-17 campaign, including six late in the season due to a groin strain. Any lingering discomfort could open things up just enough for Paul to take advantage at the point of attack.
DeAndre Jordan vs Rudy Gobert
The Clippers are one of the few teams that have had success against Utah center Rudy Gobert this season, in part because, as head coach Doc Rivers put it, “we practice every day with a guy that is very similar.”
He’s talking, of course, about DeAndre Jordan. In terms of style and impact, Jordan and Gobert are almost mirror images of one another.
DJ led the NBA in field-goal percentage (71.4 percent) while taking 87.7 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim. Gobert finished second in shooting efficiency (66.1 percent) with 84.8 percent of his looks coming in that same range.
Both bigs are particularly lethal in the pick-and-roll. Each finished among the top five league-wide in screen assists, per NBA.com. Where Gobert has converted 73.7 percent of his finishes for 1.38 points per possession, Jordan has upped the ante to 1.52 points per possession on 86.0 percent shooting.
Gobert, though, has cut a particularly imposing figure on the defensive end. He led the league in blocks (2.64 per game) and tied for sixth in defensive rebounds per game (8.9) while finishing in the top-four in defensive field-goal percentage (43.9 percent allowed) among his peers who logged at least 40 appearances and faced an average of four or more opponent attempts at the rim per game. Jordan, on the other hand, finished 31st within those same parameters, though his 10.1 defensive rebounds (second in the NBA) and 1.65 blocks (seventh) were nothing to sneeze at.
“He makes it tough on offense to come in there because he tries to block every shot,” Jordan said of Gobert.
For both teams, the key will be the same: Implore its own man in the middle to keep his opposite number in front of him.
“If he gets behind you, he creates havoc on the boards with dunks, with lobs,” Rivers said.
The same goes for Jordan, who will have his hands full with Utah’s 7’3” Frenchman from end to end.
Luc Mbah a Moute vs Gordon Hayward
No one on the Clippers will have a tougher defensive task than Luc Mbah a Moute. He’ll have to track Gordon Hayward, Utah’s leading scorer and most gifted all-around offensive player.
Of all the teams out West, only the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Andre Roberson on the wing, held Hayward to a lower scoring average than his 15.7 points on 38.1 percent shooting in three meetings with Mbah a Moute and L.A. But where Roberson has gotten some publicity for Defensive Player of the Year, Luc hasn’t had much luck garnering that kind of love. Rivers has a theory as to why.
“If you’re not scoring points, you can’t be listed as one of the better defensive players in the league,” the Clippers coach said, “which if someone could explain that to me and make sense of it, I would like to know how.”
Perhaps, in Mbah a Moute’s case, it comes down to how much pressure he puts on his opposite number. He’s not going to score nearly 22 points per game like Hayward did in 2016-17. But this season, Mbah a Moute has fashioned himself into someone who demands a defender’s eye. He shot a career-high 39.1 percent from three, including 41.5 percent from the short corners.
Mbah a Moute have to maintain that pace in the playoffs to keep Utah’s suffocating defense honest. The better he shoots, the further out Hayward has to venture on defense and the more space the Clippers will find in the middle of the floor for Paul, Griffin and Jordan.
And when Hayward has to run out to contest the shot, Mbah a Moute can show off his improved ability to drive and attack the basket, where he’s converted 62.7 percent of his close looks.
For L.A., any scoring out of the team’s starting wing will be icing on the cake. What it needs, more than anything, is for Mbah a Moute to make life miserable for Hayward on the defensive end to stifle Utah’s attack.