The Utah Jazz led the Los Angeles Clippers by 25 points just seconds into the third quarter of their do-or-die Game 6 in the second round of the NBA playoffs after Donovan Mitchell hit another step-back three. The Jazz had their season on the line down 3-2 in the series, and they were in the midst of putting together a remarkable performance. Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson were drilling shot after shot in the first half to help build the lead, while the series debut of Mike Conley, returning from an ankle injury, seemed to give Utah the emotional lift it needed to force a Game 7.
That’s when the Clippers started their comeback. With Kawhi Leonard sidelined indefinitely with an apparent ACL injury, LA head coach Ty Lue started Terance Mann, the team’s second round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, in his place. Mann erupted for 20 points in the third quarter, mostly on wide open three-point looks from the corner, to help the power the comeback. Reggie Jackson and Paul George added their own scoring punch for LA. By the time the fourth quarter started, Utah’s 25-point lead was down to just three.
The Clippers continued to blitz the Jazz in the fourth quarter on their way to a 131-119 victory. The Clippers are going to Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history after winning four straight games to wipe away Utah’s 2-0 lead to begin the series. That LA won the last two games without Leonard makes the achievement even more incredible.
The Clippers’ comeback was sparked by two things: a) a five-out, small ball attack with no traditional center on the floor, and b) an unfathomably hot shooting night. LA hit 20-of-39 shots from three on the night, including making 14-of-19 three-point attempts in the second half to stake its historic comeback. The Clippers were beating Utah the exact same way on the offensive end every time down the floor, and the Jazz made no adjustments to stop it.
The genesis of the Clippers’ comeback was their ability to burn Jazz defenders off the dribble and get deep penetration into the paint. Utah has the ultimate solution to this problem in Rudy Gobert, named Defensive Player of the Year for the third time this season and the preeminent rim protector in the sport. The problem for the Jazz was that Gobert couldn’t guard the rim and his man at the same time because the Clippers were playing with five shooters on the floor.
When Gobert rotated over to stop a drive at the rim, the Clippers would swing the ball for a wide open three-pointer. They barely missed those shots in the second half.
This is a colossal failure for the Jazz. Utah entered the playoffs with the NBA’s best record and best net-rating while grabbing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Even without Conley in the lineup, they won consecutive games against the Clippers on their home floor to take a 2-0 series lead. Even after the Clippers won Game 3 and Game 4, it felt like Leonard’s injury would put a nail in LA’s season. Utah had its own injury problems, but Kawhi’s absence loomed bigger than anything else.
Instead, the Jazz are going home for an early summer vacation during what’s become the most wide open NBA playoffs in recent memory.
Gobert was widely blamed for the Clippers’ comeback after the game. While the reigning Defensive Player of the Year deserves blame, the Jazz’s collapse was hardly all his fault.
Rudy Gobert was ‘played off the floor,’ but there’s plenty of blame to go around
The Jazz and Gobert have fought the narrative that the star big man gets played off the floor during the playoffs over the last five years. Five times the Jazz have made the playoffs, and five times they’ve failed to make the conference finals.
The idea that Gobert gets played off the floor in the playoffs isn’t always true, but the Clippers turned it into a reality in Game 6. Of course, it isn’t all his fault.
Utah’s big problem was that they couldn’t contain dribble penetration. As the Clippers took a traditional big man off the floor — Ivica Zubac played only six minutes in this game — to start five three-point threats, suddenly the man Gobert was supposed to guard was standing at the three-point arc. Gobert couldn’t protect the rim and guard his man at the same time, and the Clippers burned the Jazz in these scenarios time and time again.
Terance Freaking Mann! WOW! First Gobert rotates over (like he is supposed to) Mann hits the kick out three. Then with Conley fronting Gobert gives help and Bogdanovic or Mitchel don't cover for him. And then the transition tip dunk over Gobert for good measure. GREAT START pic.twitter.com/ftNHCunKkQ— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) June 19, 2021
Utah’s perimeter defense has an easy excuse with the injuries to Mitchell and Conley. Mitchell missed the last month of the regular season and Game 1 of their first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies with a sprained ankle. Conley valiantly made his return to the court in Game 6 after missing the whole series with a hamstring injury, but he clearly wasn’t the same, finishing the night 1-of-8 for five points in 26 minutes.
While Mann’s 39 points on 7-of-10 three-point shooting was the big storyline of the night, the Clippers’ secret MVP was Reggie Jackson. Jackson is a veteran guard who has been maligned throughout his career, but blew by Jazz defenders on the perimeter all night. When the first line of defense couldn’t stop Jackson’s dribble penetration, Gobert would have to rotate over to stop a layup. That left Mann — the player Gobert was supposed to be guarding — wide open for corner three after corner three.
Gobert isn’t blameless. He did need to make more of an effort to defend the three-point line, especially with the Clippers shooting so well. He needed to punish the Clippers on the other end, which he couldn’t do. Gobert finished with only 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting on the night.
More than anything, though, Utah needed its perimeter defenders to hold up better against LA’s drives to prevent putting Gobert in a lose-lose position. This was just way too easy for the Clips.
Maybe Gobert’s closeouts were a little timid because he remembered when Mann did to him a few nights earlier. Mann had one of the great dunks of the playoffs in Game 5 when he caught the ball in the corner, forced Gobert into a hard closeout, took him off the dribble and dunked on him.
No one wants to get dunked on, especially not the three-time Defensive Player of the Year with a 7’9 wingspan. That shot was only worth two points, though. Gobert would have done better to let the Clips try to dunk on him every play rather than getting spoon fed open corner threes.
The Jazz needed a small ball center option, and they didn’t have one
The Jazz paid Gobert a five-year, $205 million contract extension at the start of the season. He was the biggest reason for the team’s success during the regular season, and was deservingly named the only Jazz player to make an All-NBA team. Any team needs their highest-paid and most accomplished player on the floor for the biggest moments of their season, but playing Gobert 42 minutes in Game 6 and refusing to adjust to what the Clippers were doing was the definition of insanity.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder deserves a ton of blame for this Game 6 loss. The Jazz front office deserves blame, too. Instead of digging in their heels and saying Gobert never gets played off the floor in the playoffs, the Jazz should have focused on acquiring a small ball center option as an adjustment for when it actually happened.
Gobert was -24 in 42 minutes. Even resting him for 5-10 more minutes and putting a small ball center option on the floor who could defend the three-point line would have been a better option. The problem is the Jazz don’t really have a player who can act as a small ball five on the roster.
Utah’s front office badly needed to give the team more versatility in the front court. Snyder needed to adjust his game plan and pull Gobert off the floor regardless as the Clippers kept draining threes. The perimeter defenders on the Jazz needed to do a better job holding up at the point of attack. Gobert needed to focus less on protecting the rim and focus more on staying glued to his man at the arc.
It’s going to be a long offseason for Utah. Maybe would have won this series with better injury luck — though the Clippers aren’t going to give them that excuse as they missed Leonard. Maybe the Jazz win this series if the Clippers didn’t get so ridiculously hot from three-point range in Game 6. The Jazz aren’t fundamentally broken, but they are flawed. The team simply doesn’t have enough versatility.
Blame Gobert for this loss if you want, but it isn’t all his fault. This loss is an organization failure on every level.