Jazz vs. Clippers: Previewing the Point

April 14th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton
Jacob Gonzalez via clippers.com

Jacob Gonzalez via clippers.com

What if I told you that the NBA’s leader in real plus-minus hasn’t really even been mentioned in the race for Most Valuable Player?

The same guy is shooting the three as well as Steph Curry, ranks just behind MVP frontrunners James Harden and Russell Westbrook for third place in box plus-minus and is tied with Kawhi Leonard for second in win shares per 48 minutes. He helms a top-four offense that gets even better (116.2 points per 100 possessions) when he’s on the floor, largely because this guy is an elite free throw shooter (10th in the league) and assister (4th). He also has the second best steal rate in the league and is generally considered one of the best perimeter defenders on the planet.

Of course, the 21 games Chris Paul missed1 are the reason the Clipper guard hasn’t sniffed the MVP conversation. But when he’s been healthy, Paul has been a two-way terror, and any discussion of the point guard matchups in the impending Jazz-Clippers playoff series starts with the surly six-footer, the Western Conference Player of the Month for April.

It’s hard to overstate just how important Paul is to the Clippers’ identity. Blake Griffin has rightly garnered credit for keeping the ship on track while Paul worked his way back from thumb and hamstring injuries, but they’re a different team with CP3. Their record in games with their starting point guard (43-18) is good enough for a 58-win pace over 82 games.

It’s easy to see why when you watch the Clipper guard at work. On offense, he’s a patient orchestrator who seems to have the ball on a string while he reads and then carves up coverages. The Clippers are the most effective team in the league on possessions that end with an action by either the handler or screener in pick-and-roll action, and that’s largely because of Paul’s vision, patience and surgical skills. And on defends, he’s handsy, tough and sneaky. His steals don’t even tell the full story of how good he is on that end; he has the best defensive rating on the Clippers, and the 10th best of any NBA player who averages at least 24 minutes.

Bottom line: the Jazz will have their hands full with Chris Paul. So they have to hope that the Clippers will have their hands full with George Hill, too.

Hill is having a career year by many measures, but injuries claimed more than a third of his season, too. Even using the most bullish of projections for Hill, the Clippers probably get a nod in this individual matchup, but basketball games aren’t won or lost that way. The Jazz don’t need Hill to neutralize Paul, they need to find schemes that balance out across a five-man unit.

That was precisely Utah’s tack in their lone win against the Clippers this season. They didn’t worry too much about bottling up Paul as he came off of screens. In that particular game, they were committed to a “contain” style of pick-and-roll defense that would prevent Griffin and DeAndre Jordan from wreaking too much havoc. Consequently, Paul had a big night, but the Clippers came away with a loss.

In a seven-game series, no one particular strategy is going to get the Jazz four wins. They’ll have to try some different things to slow the terror that is the Paul-led pick-and-roll. But if that March 13 win shows anything, it’s that the Jazz can devise a game plan that allows them to decide what they’ll give up and what they won’t.

And as far as the Hill-Paul matchup goes, Hill has some tools to make things harder on the eight-time All-Star should the Jazz decide to go after the head of the snake. Hill’s a solid defender with good positional understanding, good anticipation and a 6’9″ wingspan he can drape around opponents. The Jazz have also put longer defenders on Paul this season, including Dante Exum and — perhaps more surprisingly — the 6’8″ Joe Ingles.

Importantly, Hill can also make Paul work on the other end. Paul is an eight-time All-Defensive guard, so he’ll be in Hill’s nightmares more than the other way around, but it’s still important to have someone who causes CP3 to expend energy during that half of the game. Paul can’t be as brazen about leaving to sneak up on big men for steals while a 40 percent three-point shooter is out setting up for a shot, and guarding Hill with the ball is going to mean dealing with two big, physical screeners in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors.

Actually, when Hill finishes as the P&R ball handler, he is slightly more efficient than Paul2. That will be an important option to have, especially since the Clips have a capable wing defender in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to make it harder for Gordon Hayward to find his usual shots.

Behind Paul and Hill, both teams have a bit of ambiguity with their backup points. For the Jazz, that ambiguity has been there all season long. Exum, Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto all offer different things, but not one of the three has made himself the obvious full-time answer there after 82 games.

Neto’s hurt to the start the series, so that narrows the choices down some. Exum excels at the defensive end when he’s dialed in, and he occasionally shows bursts of north-south speed that made him a top-five pick. But when he plays, someone else (often Ingles) is the de facto facilitator for the Jazz. Mack is more comfortable running the offense, but the ball can get a bit sticky during some of his stings. He also makes some weird defensive choices, primarily by guarding guys from their hip pocket when they’re way out front. Anybody with even average foot speed can easily shake loose when pressured at 30 feet by the not particularly fleet-footed Mack, and then the whole defense gets thrown into recovery mode.

Still it seems that Mack probably has the job for now, as most of Exum’s minutes in April have come alongside another point guard. It seems that’s where the Jazz have settled for their late season rotation: with either Neto (when healthy) or Mack as the backup point guard and Exum usurping minutes from a struggling Alec Burks at the two.

The Clippers’ backup point guard issues aren’t quite as nebulous as that, but injuries have changed things a bit. Raymond Felton is typically their low-minute backup, but when Austin Rivers is healthy, he bears as much or more of the offensive initiation duties. Since Rivers is out for at least the first couple of games, the second unit is going to be Felton’s show to run, and that could pose a problem for L.A. since the offense can be a little anemic on his watch3. Jamal Crawford can help handle, but that takes him out of some off-ball situations where he’s positively lethal. He loves to shoot off the catch, and he also uses off-ball screens to force mismatches he can attack. It’s hard to do either of those if the offense is on his shoulders during the bench minutes.

Add all that up and this is still a position where the Clippers have a major advantage, if only because of the playoff-savvy Paul, who will suit up for his 70th playoff game on Saturday night. The 31-year-old4 has been playing like a forgotten MVP candidate, and it’s up to Hill and Jazz to find a way to counter.

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

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