Fresh off the apparent re-emergence of Kawhi Leonard following a worrisome Game 5, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves in Salt Lake City, and not Cancun, tonight.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they’ll be slightly more than 48 hours removed from outlasting the Dallas Mavericks in Sunday’s Game 7 when they take the floor for warm-ups this evening. The No. 1 seed Utah Jazz haven’t played since June 2, their last against the Memphis Grizzlies, who they took down in five games after dropping the first in Round 1. But the rhythm the Clippers have established in the meantime could serve to their advantage because rest doesn’t always lead to the upper hand. The Milwaukee Bucks have an entire week to prepare for the Brooklyn Nets before Game 1 and are now down 2-0 despite the Nets having three fewer days of rest. The Jazz just experienced this themselves, they lost in Game 1 to the Grizzlies, who won two play-in games while the Jazz merely sat and waited … and also sat Donovan Mitchell before re-inserting him in Game 2. (Evidently, that was a significant difference, too, of course.)
But in Clippers vs. Jazz, typically, Game 1 is the one to steal if you’re on the road. In the past 10 years, four teams in NBA playoff semifinal history upset the higher seed while on the road for Game 1 and went on to win the series: Last year’s Miami Heat against Milwaukee, last year’s Boston Celtics over the Toronto Raptors (the Bubble for both, but still), the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers over the Raptors, the 2013 Indiana Pacers against the New York Knicks, and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Atlanta Hawks are the only 2021 team to achieve the Game 1 portion of this so far after surprising the Sixers on Sunday. For the Clippers, against a Jazz team who went 31-5 at home this season, Game 1 is the most opportune time to solidify their arrival.
Regarding those five upsets where the underdog won a road Game 1 and the series, in last year’s Bubble, the Heat had a week between games while the Bucks had two days, and both the Celtics and Raptors had seven days each. The Cavaliers had been just two days removed from outlasting the Indiana Pacers in a testy seven-game series and swept the Raptors, who had last played four days prior to their 2018 series. The Pacers-Knicks series of 2013 began on May 5 after both closed out their opponents on May 3. And in 2011, the Mavericks and Lakers were each four days removed from Round 1’s conclusion before facing each other. All of which is to say, rest generally isn’t a make-or-break factor. (And, for what it’s worth, only last year’s Celtics-Raptors series of these five went seven games. The Mavericks’ and Cavaliers’ victories were sweeps; the Heat won in five, and the Pacers in six.)
On high-end talent alone, the Clippers have Leonard and Paul George, which is supposed to overrule the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert tandem. But is it, though? The Jazz had been as good as anyone all regular season long, and they won the in-season series 2-1, though 1-1 with both Leonard and George active. The Jazz are 4-0 in the playoffs with Mitchell, who averaged 28.5 points and 5.8 assists on 45 / 40 / 90 splits last series. But much like the Suns demonstrated in Game 1, the balancing act is important, and the Jazz established that in the opening series.
Against Memphis: Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Bojan Bogdanović all averaged over 17 points per game. Only Clarkson shot below 45 percent from the field and under 40 percent from three. The Clippers struggled to find their balance consistently until Game 7, where seven players landed in double figures, including their entire starting five. And at that point, it seemed like they solidified a rotation after toying with different combinations earlier. In Game 6, Leonard carried them to the finish line in dispiriting fashion for the Mavs, scoring 45 points on 18-of-25 shooting.
Leonard is the best player in this series, but the depth of the Jazz has been more consistent thus far, and they’ll be more rested for whatever it’s worth. Leonard’s reputation reflects that of an elite postseason performer we’ve seen since his first NBA Finals MVP of 2014. He’s averaged 27.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 51 / 39 / 88 shooting since that first Finals MVP, which is through a seven-season stretch including 73 playoff games. Leonard will show up, but the other guys have to as well if they’re going to overcome Utah’s uniformity. And, of note, Conley is out for Game 1, meaning the Jazz are down their starting point guard, thanks to a hamstring strain.