The Clippers escaped Luka Doncic only to run into a Donovan Mitchell buzzsaw
For a second straight series, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves in an 0-2 hole, and for a second straight series, their inability to contain their opponent's primary creator is the biggest reason why.
After escaping Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks by the skin of their teeth in the first round, it seemed like things would get a bit more straightforward for the Clippers' defense in the West semis against the Utah Jazz. Not that there would be anything simple about dealing with Utah's whirring motion offense, but the switch-happy approach that frequently got L.A. into hot water against Dallas felt more tenable against a Jazz team that thrives on putting opposing defenses in rotation and doesn't have a one-on-one scorer of Doncic's caliber.
So much for that. Through two games, Donovan Mitchell is averaging 41 points while shooting 59.4% from 2-point range and 44.4% from beyond the arc, helping Utah hold serve at home despite not having Mike Conley. The Clippers are having many of the same problems trying to guard Mitchell as they had with Doncic. As was the case in the first round, a large portion of those struggles simply come down to shot-making, but it's clear that their defense is vulnerable to high-end perimeter scorers. It's worth wondering how and why that keeps happening to a team that employs some of the best perimeter defenders of the last decade.
For starters, it's important to recognize that defense in today's NBA is not a man-to-man enterprise. Pick-and-roll offense is so prevalent that initial individual matchups often don't even wind up mattering. It's all well and good to put your best one-on-one defender on the opposing team's best offensive player, but if that defender isn't an absolute ace at navigating screens, he's going to wind up either trailing the play or switched onto someone else.
Defending an elite creator takes a village, and the Clippers as a collective are failing in that regard through a combination of individual mistakes, communication breakdowns, and poor schematic execution.
It doesn't help they're without Serge Ibaka, their most versatile big-man defender, who just underwent season-ending back surgery. After going small from the jump in Game 1, they decided to reinsert center Ivica Zubac into the starting lineup for Game 2 - Mitchell and the Jazz quickly made them regret it.
Unlike their plan against Doncic, the Clippers weren't prepared to switch Zubac onto Mitchell, instead opting to drop him back. Against a pull-up 3-point shooter of Mitchell's caliber, playing a drop makes it absolutely imperative for the on-ball defender to stay in contact and apply a modicum of pressure while fighting over the screen. That very much did not happen early on, and the reason had a lot to do with Utah's plan of attack.
On three consecutive possessions, he caught Paul George cheating to get over Rudy Gobert's screen and crossed over to get himself a clean look, with Gobert helping him out by flipping the screen at the last second:
George is still a strong defender but isn't the screen navigator he once was. Mitchell has continually toyed with his expectations and gotten him leaning the wrong way.
Giving Kawhi Leonard the primary assignment was met with only marginally more success. Like George, Leonard isn't quite the screen evader he was early in his career, and Mitchell was able to shake free of him without much difficulty. Even when Leonard was able to stay connected while fighting overtop, Mitchell managed to keep him jailed behind the ball:
The Clippers wasted little time shelving Zubac (who wound up playing just 13 minutes) and reverting to their switch-everything approach with their smaller lineup, which took away Mitchell's built-in pull-up looks. But, and stop me if you've heard this one before, that created a new set of problems for L.A.
Mitchell may not be able to truck smaller guys the way Doncic can, but he can blow by slower-footed defenders. Mitchell has been able to target those guys (Marcus Morris chief among them) on switches and turn the corner to get downhill, taking advantage of the small lineups' lack of rim protection.
L.A. started experimenting with hard double-teams in the second half, and that didn't go too well, either. Mitchell isn't nearly the playmaker Doncic is, so you might think that tactic would have more legs in this series than it did last round. But Mitchell can still sling some sweet passes, and the Jazz have a lot more complementary shooting and playmaking than the Mavs did. Willingly putting yourself in rotation against them is rarely a good idea.
Execution also matters. It didn't help when both the Clippers' weak-side defenders rotated to the same shooter and left Gobert wide-open under the basket, or when Morris committed early to Royce O'Neale rather than splitting the difference between him and Bojan Bogdanovic, leaving Zubac to make a long, lumbering closeout to Utah's most dangerous spot-up shooter:
The Clippers found their most successful formula midway through the third quarter by going to a 2-3 zone with Zubac in the middle, a look that threw the Jazz completely out of rhythm and got L.A. back in the game. It kept Zubac out of the high-screen action and made it more difficult for Mitchell to penetrate. The Jazz often resorted to simply swinging the ball around the perimeter.
The Clippers didn't stick with that look in the fourth quarter, perhaps sensing that an offense as sophisticated as Utah's would soon be able to solve it. It'll be interesting to see if or when or how often they go back to that well as the series progresses.
One well the Clippers probably shouldn't go back to is closing games with Luke Kennard. While Kennard has given their offense a needed shot in the arm, his presence on the floor in crunch time ruins the defensive integrity of their small-ball units, and, because they try to avoid switching him onto Mitchell, he almost defeats the purpose of going small in the first place.
At the tail end of Games 1 and 2, Mitchell repeatedly dragged Kennard into screening action, and Kennard simply wasn't able to show and recover effectively. He either failed to prevent Mitchell from turning the corner or got burned on a slow recovery to a pick-and-pop shooter:
Meanwhile Terrence Mann, a switchable wing who played a key role in the Dallas series, saw the floor for just one minute in Game 2.
So, there's definitely some stuff the Clippers can clean up in terms of both tactics and execution. Hell, they let Joe Ingles literally stroll into a dagger 3-pointer because both Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley were preoccupied with Mitchell in semi-transition. A bit more focus could go a long way.
The thing is, on the whole, the Clippers are doing a lot of things right from a process perspective. They're mostly keeping themselves out of rotation, and they're forcing Utah into a ton of pull-up jumpers. The Jazz finished with just 15 assists on 42 made field goals in Game 2, their fourth-lowest assist percentage in any game this season. But that won't matter if L.A. can't prevent Mitchell from doing what he's been doing on an individual level.
It's eerily familiar territory for the Clippers. They never really found a way to slow down Doncic, either, but they still managed to come back and win that series because his supporting cast couldn't hold up its end of the bargain and because the Mavericks' defense was just as helpless against Leonard. They can't expect the same from Utah, particularly if Conley is able to return. Some shooting regression is likely in store for the Jazz, but those two wins are already banked and L.A.'s margin for error has once again evaporated.
If the Clippers breathed a sigh of relief after surviving Doncic, Mitchell ought to have disabused them of any notions of complacency. They escaped the frying pan only to fall right into the fire.