2021 NBA conference semifinals previews: (1) Utah Jazz vs. (4) Los Angeles Clippers

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·6-min read
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The top-seeded Utah Jazz and fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers meet in the Western Conference semifinals. The Jazz and Clippers, respectively, beat the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks in the opening round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The two franchises last met in the playoffs in 2017.

Game 1: L.A. Clippers at Utah, 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday (TNT)
Game 2: L.A. Clippers at Utah, 10 p.m. ET on Thursday (ESPN)
Game 3: Utah at L.A. Clippers, 8:30 p.m. ET on Saturday (ABC)
Game 4: Utah at L.A. Clippers, 10 p.m. ET on June 14 (TNT)
*Game 5: L.A. Clippers at Utah, TBD on June 16 (TNT)
*Game 6: Utah at L.A. Clippers, TBD on June 18 (ESPN)
*Game 7: L.A. Clippers at Utah, TBD on June 20
*if necessary

How they got here

Utah Jazz

The Jazz made quick work of the Memphis Grizzlies once Donovan Mitchell returned in Game 2 from his ankle sprain, even if Ja Morant and company managed to keep much of the five-game series competitive.

Mitchell averaged 28.5 points (45/40/90 shooting splits), 5.8 assists and three rebounds in just 30 minutes over his four appearances, looking every bit the rising superstar he did in last year's first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets. This time, Mitchell got a whole lot more help from one of the deepest rotations around.

No longer hamstrung by the injury that limited him in last season's playoffs, Mike Conley was incredibly efficient against the Grizzlies, averaging 17.4 points on 12 shots and 8.6 assists against 1.6 turnovers. Bojan Bogdanovic, who missed the 2020 postseason with a wrist injury, averaged 18.4 points on 49/43/91 splits against Memphis. The Jazz also got a nightly 17-13 double-double from Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert and 18.6 points per game off the bench from Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson.

As a team, the Jazz shot 40.6% on 41.4 3-point attempts per game in the first round, even better than their remarkable regular-season production from distance. The Grizzlies did reveal some weaknesses in Utah's armor, as Morant and Dillon Brooks had their way attacking the perimeter defense both in isolation and the pick and roll. Even Jonas Valanciunas flexed his muscle against Gobert. But Utah's depth of scoring talent was enough to overcome a defense that allowed 115 points per 100 possessions to a middling offense.

Los Angeles Clippers

After losing the first two games of their first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers looked to be on the precipice of another disastrous playoff performance — one that could threaten to shake up a wildly talented roster. Then, Kawhi Leonard established himself as the best two-way player in the series.

Leonard swung Games 6 and 7 for the Clippers with a blend of offensive and defensive brilliance opposite Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic that few, if any, players in the league can match. By the time it was over, Leonard averaged a 32-8-5 on 61/43/90 shooting splits with 3.3 blocks and steals in 41 minutes per game.

Paul George looked more like himself than last year's playoffs, when he received the blunt of the blame for L.A.'s failure, and his poor 3-point shooting against Dallas (30.6% for the series) means there is more room for improvement on his 23.6 points, nine rebounds and 5.7 assists in 40.7 minutes a game in the first round.

Surrounded by shooters, Doncic almost singlehandedly carved up the L.A. defense. That does not bode well for their chances against Mitchell and Utah's wealth of shooting. If they want to run with the Jazz, the Clippers need more of the Games 6 and 7 performances they got against Dallas from Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard and Terance Mann. There is a version of the Clips that is the most talented team left in the Western Conference, but they have yet to prove so consistently cohesive as the Jazz.

Can Clippers star Kawhi Leonard keep Jazz counterpart Donovan Mitchell on his heels? (Harry How/Getty Images)
Can Clippers star Kawhi Leonard keep Jazz counterpart Donovan Mitchell on his heels? (Harry How/Getty Images)

Head to head

The Jazz won their regular-season series with the Clippers, 2-1.

Utah led by as many as 20 points in the second half of their first meeting, before L.A. made it close down the stretch, but Conley's 33 points, seven 3-pointers and seven assists were too much to overcome. Conley missed the second game, but so too did Leonard and George, and the Jazz rolled to a blowout win.

With George on a minutes restriction, Leonard helped the Clippers avoid a season sweep on Feb. 19. The teams have not played since, a stretch that includes L.A.'s deadline swap of Lou Williams for Rajon Rondo.

If we learned anything from their three meetings, the Jazz and Clippers play close when at full strength.

Closing lineups

Utah Jazz

The Jazz prioritize Royce O'Neale's defense over the offensive contributions of Clarkson or Joe Ingles in crunch-time minutes with Mitchell, Gobert, Conley and Bogdanovic. Few NBA lineups played more during the regular season than that five-man unit, which outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes, per Cleaning the Glass. They were +10 in 51 minutes against the Clips this year.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder can swap Clarkson and/or Ingles in for more scoring or trade Derrick Favors for Gobert if L.A.'s small-ball lineups are really cooking, but why mess with what got them a No. 1 overall seed.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers will certainly try to play Gobert off the floor, employing long-armed swingmen Leonard, George, Morris and Nicolas Batum in crunch time. Their length and versatility allow coach Tyronn Lue to mix in whatever feels necessary at the fifth spot. Against the Mavericks, Lue tried Jackson, Rondo and Mann in clutch minutes, ultimately settling on Jackson's hot hand down the stretch of a must-win Game 6.

Matchup to watch

Leonard spent more time defending Bogdanovic, O'Neale and Ingles than he did Mitchell this season, but as we learned against Dallas, the two-time Finals MVP is still fully capable of swinging star matchups in his favor with defense. Doncic shot 42% from the field and 32% from 3-point range when defended by Leonard in the first round, according to the NBA's tracking data. Otherwise, Doncic shot 51% and 44% for the series.

Mitchell is Utah's offense when games get tight in the fourth quarter, using most of his team's possessions to either create for himself or find Gobert on the roll. The Jazz have creators to fill the void if Leonard limits Mitchell as he did Doncic, including Conley, but getting them out of their comfort zone should be a priority.

Conversely, O'Neale is Utah's only plus defender to throw at Leonard and George. Bogdanovic is capable on that end, but the Clippers will like their chances of finding a favorable matchup for Leonard and George against the Jazz defense. That means George must complement Leonard's offensive production better than anyone in Utah complements Mitchell, or the Clippers will fall short of the conference finals once again. 

BetMGM series odds

Jazz (-140)

Clippers (+115)

Prediction

Clippers in seven.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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