Chris Paul Carves Through Jazz Defense, Puts Clips Up 2-1

April 22nd, 2017 | by Dan Clayton
Andrew D. Bernstein via

Andrew D. Bernstein via

Six minutes of futility cost the Jazz a chance to score a Game 4 win against the Clippers on Friday night. After controlling most of the game, the Jazz allowed their visitors to seize control of the game and series with a 15-0 run between the 8:00 mark and the 2:00 mark of the fourth quarter.

Blake Griffin had exited the game with a toe/plantar injury, which might have made the Clipper offense easy for Utah’s defenders to solve. But that’s not how it played out. Chris Paul instead decimated the Jazz’s defense over and over, to the tune of 13 fourth-quarter points. He scored nine straight during the Clippers’ 15-point burst, starting with the three-point basket that put the Clippers up for good. The Jazz squandered a 96-88 lead and allowed Gordon Hayward’s historic game — tied for the sixth most points by a player in Jazz playoff history — to become a footnote. They now trail 1-2 in the best-of-seven series.

Around the time Paul was slicing up the defense for consecutive layups, a couple things became clear. First, this series — as was always and inevitably the case — will be decided by pick-and-roll defensive strategies. Second, the Jazz are likely going to need Rudy Gobert back at some point to give themselves options to solve for Paul’s pick-and-roll brilliance.

That the Jazz have been competitive in all three games in the series so far even without their most impactful defender1 is a testament to how smartly and tenaciously the Jazz have played without the elite paint protector and roll finisher. But they don’t decide playoff series by how closely teams lose games. And if Friday was any indication, Paul is poised to take over for the fourth-seeded Clippers.

Griffin’s injury makes this series all about Paul. The Clippers announced on Saturday that their power forward is done for the year, which means the Jazz will win or lose based on what they can do to limit one of the league’s top point guards when he’s fully in command of the offense. So far, Utah has struggled. A quirky late lineup may have gotten into the heads of help defenders, but the bottom line is that Utah will need more energy from its bigs guarding the P&R. So as the focus shifts to Paul, it shifts too toward Derrick Favors.

That’s not meant as a criticism of the Jazz’s seven year veteran, who clearly gave every ounce of effort he had. It’s just the state of where he’s at after a season and a half riddled with different maladies. Not that long ago, Favors was considered a dependable scorer, an above average defender, and a borderline star in overall terms. What’s happening right now is clearly a result of the big man just not having enough in the tank to do what the Jazz need him to do for that length of time.

“The guy played 38 minutes,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Favors. “He hasn’t played that many minutes all year. So he’s battling… He’s competing, he’s playing hard, and we’re asking a lot of him right now. We’re gonna keep doing that and he’s gonna keep giving us everything he has.”

Favors did just that, including by playing pretty solid defense early on. He has never been a guy to struggle with defensive assignments. Even as a 19-year-old in his first season in Utah, he was credit for knowing every scheme, including other guys’ assignments, and being a real leader at directing traffic on the defensive end. That doesn’t mean he never gets beat, but he’s usually doing the right things and getting to the right places.

On Friday, the Jazz went back to a conservative scheme against the Clippers’ high screens. After LA exploited the Jazz’s high help for 60 paint points in Game 2, the Jazz adjusted, instead asking bigs like Favors to slide over and cut off the ball handler (usually Paul) but then recover back to the big. Early in the game, Favors did a great job putting himself in Paul’s path but still getting back to challenge DeAndre Jordan.

On this play, he wasn’t involved in defending the screening action at all, but he noticed that the screener’s man was in trouble, so he instinctively slid over to Griffin, and he and Boris Diaw were able to seamless switch.

At some point, though, he just ran out of gas. He tried to make those same plays late, and while the spirit was willing, the flesh just couldn’t get there. He finished with a game-worst -172, and there were plays where he looked to be wearing cinderblocks instead of sneakers.

During that decisive stretch, Paul kept milking the same play, getting all the way in for layups on three consecutive plays3 because Favors wasn’t able to corral him and the weak side help got stuck in no man’s land.

Part of this is just Paul being really freaking good. He seems to have a precise read on every shift in the defender’s balance and feasts off of the defense’s indecision. At the point of attack, though, it’s Favors not having his earlier nimbleness that doomed the Jazz.

To Favors’ credit, he then made two impressive defensive plays. The Clippers came down into the exact same set-up for a third straight play, only this time Joe Ingles iced the pick4 and led Paul straight into the help defense of Favors, who deflected and stole the ball. On the next play, Utah decided to switch screens and the Jazz big man did a great job cutting off the Clippers’ leader on a switch, but Joe Johnson failed to box out Jordan, whom he had picked up in all the switching action.

There’s another factor worth mentioning in that stretch of three straight Paul layups: each time, a different potential helper is unsure what to do. Rewatch that video, only this time, watch Johnson, Hayward and George Hill each take their turn being the corner defender that’s not quite sure whether to help or not. This is a product of the other component that factored into the perfect fourth-quarter storm: the Clippers had a lineup out there that the Jazz probably hadn’t anticipated.

Over time, Griffin’s absence probably makes the Clippers’ offense easier to solve for, not harder. But when it happens in the course of a game, you don’t have time to develop specific game plans for the funky lineups you’ll see. This unit — Paul, Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jordan — had played just a single scoreless possession together in the entire series before they were thrown together for 11 minutes on Friday. The Jazz just haven’t faced the Clippers’ version of small-ball enough to have planned and practiced for the dozens of help scenarios. As a result, a combination the Jazz had barely seen this postseason torched them — 59.6% true shooting, 57.1% of offensive rebounds on their own scarce misses, and +20.1 net rating.

For example, Paul Pierce was scoreless in the game and didn’t even attempt a shot in the fourth quarter. But the Clips played winning ball (+4) with him on the court in the final frame. He was basically little more than a decoy, meant to make help defenders think twice about swarming to the eight-time all-league point guard.

That part of the equation probably improves after Snyder and his staff have time to plan specifically for how to respond to those lineups. Much the same way that the absence of Gobert rendered LA’s game plan moot in Game 1, the Blake injury just had a weird effect on the game that Utah had no plausible reason to prepare for. Now they will. Whether LA chooses to rely more on Pierce at the four or reengage someone like Brandon Bass, the Jazz will have those possibilities in mind as they prepare for Sunday.

What won’t magically change before Game 4 is the Favors situation. It just doesn’t seem like he’s got the fumes to last that many minutes at a high level. The Jazz’s best bet is probably to try to buy him a few extra minutes of rest throughout the game by calling on Diaw and Jeff Withey so that Favors is potentially fresher late. Both of those players also own negative net ratings at center in this series, though. There are no great answers, short of making a sacrifice to the basketball gods that either Favors can find a second wind or Gobert can make a speedy recovery.

Long-term, Favors will still likely get himself right. Bodies get better, especially for 25-year-olds, so it’s too early to assume that this ground-bound version of the big man is the new normal.

But in a series that, with the turn of a toe, becomes all about stopping Chris Paul, the Jazz could use the help sooner rather than later.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton


  1. Pingback: Game 4 Relived: Every Moment of a Crazy Close in Jazz-Clips | Salt City Hoops

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