Game 1 Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz

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#4 – Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers enter their first-round matchup with some momentum after winning eight of their last 10 regular season games and securing home court advantage on the final night of the regular season. As the Utah Jazz prepare to face the Clippers, they must be wondering which version of the Clippers will show up.

Is this the excellent Clippers team ending the season on a hot streak that also started the year with a 14-2 record? Or is this the team in between that has been injured throughout significant periods of the season, seemingly disinterested and average?

Considering how volatile Los Angeles has been this season, it’s tough to answer this question at this point. However, the Clippers’ recent hot streak suggests that are peaking at the perfect time. Blake Griffin, in particular, has been on a tear recently. In the month of April, Griffin is shooting 57.5 percent from the field and continues his solid (though low volume) three-point shooting.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Clippers is whether or not they can stay healthy. Last postseason, Griffin and Chris Paul both went down with injuries in the same game. Despite a valiant effort from a number of players, including guard Austin Rivers, in particular, the Clippers unsurprisingly lost the series and were knocked out of the first round by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Now the Clippers, with multiple players set to become free agents and perhaps the direction of the franchise at stake, face a very tough first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz, who themselves will be looking to make some noise in the postseason.

If the Clippers can stay healthy, which would include Rivers returning from a recent hamstring injury, expect them to continue to run their offense heavily through Paul, who will look to get shooting guard J.J. Redick involved early while setting up Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan for easy looks near the basket. Whether Jordan can be consistently effective remains to be seen with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert expertly patrolling the paint for the Jazz.

Gobert’s defense will be a central concern for Los Angeles, as he has the potential to singlehandedly disrupt just about any team’s offense. Also, the play of Jamal Crawford will be key in this series, especially with Rivers injured. Crawford can score in bunches, but his poor defense often hinders the Clippers. Crawford has struggled in the last few postseasons, which could be a problem for a Clippers team that is facing one of the toughest defenses in the entire league.

#5 – Utah Jazz

Unlike the Clippers, who are hoping to overcome the demons of their past playoff blunders, the Jazz enter the postseason as playoff newcomers. Very few core players on the Jazz have any meaningful playoff experience (or any at all) and will be tested in the postseason. However, Utah has a few playoff-tested veterans in guys like Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw, who will be relied on to keep the team grounded in difficult situations.

Like the Clippers, the Jazz face significant consequences based on how their postseason plays out. If they come up short against a comparable, but more experienced Clippers squad, will key Utah free agents be dissuaded from possibly re-signing? Hill and Gordon Hayward are set to be free agents and will have a lot of suitors in the offseason. If Utah flames out in the first round, it could have an impact on these talented players.

The Jazz come into this playoff series as a team that, statistically speaking, may be even better than their playoff ranking may indicate. Utah ranked third in defensive rating and fifth in overall net rating during the regular season. Additionally, the Jazz have a smart coach in Quin Snyder and two stars (Hayward and Gobert) having their finest seasons yet.

So what are the major issues or dynamics to keep an eye on for Utah? Contrasting style of play and pace, for one, will be key in this series. The Jazz run a slow offense (last in the league in pace), which could be a positive or negative in postseason play against the Clippers, who can score in bunches. Also, the Jazz have struggled with injuries all year and that issue is ongoing. Favors, Hill and Rodney Hood have each struggled with or continue to fight through nagging injuries. If any of these players is severely limited, this could be a short series for Utah.

Additionally, as players have missed games here and there, Utah has been forced to shuffle its lineups around frequently. This could lead to some shaky play if Utah’s players struggle to find a rhythm while playing with key guys who have seen limited action in recent weeks. Also, the Jazz have lost three of four games against the Clippers this year, which indicates that Los Angeles is well-equipped to handle Utah in the postseason.

Another major dynamic to keep an eye on is the play of Hayward. With all the praise Hayward has rightfully received this season, he has struggled against Clippers, putting up only 15.7 points instead of his season average of 21.9 points. Primary defensive credit and responsibility goes to forward Luc Mbah a Moute, who has the size and skill to slow down a player as talented as Hayward. If Hayward can’t shake Mbah a Moute, look for Jazz shooting guard Rodney Hood to try and step up for the Jazz. As previously noted, it’s not yet clear when Rivers will return from his hamstring injury. Primary defensive duties on Hood will be left to Redick and perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford – neither of whom are particularly well-equipped to slow Hood down.

Utah is mainly powered by its defense and that won’t change in the first round. However, with the Clippers hitting their stride, and Griffin playing particularly well, it may be difficult for the Jazz to keep pace with Los Angeles.

Who Wins Game 1?

The Jazz will finally make their return to the playoffs but will do so on the Clippers’ home court. Can the Jazz handle the spotlight and the recent run of brilliance from the Clippers? Clippers take Game One.