The first round of the NBA Playoffs in the Western Conference features a big series for both the LA Clippers and the Utah Jazz.
For Los Angeles, four of their five starters are free agents at the end of the 2016-17 season, and a disappointing playoff campaign could see the end of an era for these Clippers.
Chris Paul, J.J Reddick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Blake Griffin all have the option to leave Los Angeles in the upcoming offseason, and having not made it past the second round in the Chris Paul era, the pressure is on.
It’s a completely different story for Utah. Having not played in the playoffs since the 2011-12 season, the 51-31 Jazz have defied injury and a stacked West. They only lose their hold on home court advantage in the first round in the last days of the season.
With Derrick Favours, George Hill and Gordon Hayward all missing their share of games throughout the season, the Jazz have had to rely on a solid team defence and a key group of role players, led by Joe Ingles who ranked third in the NBA in three point percentage.
Their defence has been their identity under coach Quin Snyder, and they ranked first in opponents points per game this season. Their three point defence, however, was below the league average, with opposing teams shooting 35.76% from beyond the arc.
They do however, allow the fewest assists per game, and they ranked second in steals per game. Basically, led by Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward, they are an exceptional defensive team.
Their field goal percentage is well below the league average, as are their assists per game. Overall their offensive rating is 12th in the NBA, compared to the fourth ranked Clippers.
The Clippers ranked 13th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and defended the paint reasonably well, something that will be important against Utah.
The Clippers will need their stars to play at a high level for them to overcome Utah’s stingy defence. The health of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin over the years has been questionable, but a relatively healthy injury list (Austin Rivers only is in doubt for the series) is the most important thing for the Clippers.
The teams played on four occasions in the 2016-17 season, with the Clippers winning three and the Jazz clinching one.
In the first two meetings, defence was at a premium. Final scores of 88-75 and 88-72 in favour of Los Angeles could be a preview of things to come, although the winning side scored north of 100 points in the next two contests.
Gordon Hayward has struggled against Los Angeles this season, scoring just a total of 47 points in three games. For the Jazz to have success in the postseason, Hayward will need to post good offensive numbers and force the Clippers defence to adjust.
Another key matchup is between the defensive juggernauts of DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert. There will be very few easy buckets at the rim while they are on the court. They rank first and second in the NBA in field goal percentage but will be eager to keep shots at a minimum.
Finally, the battle of the benches could prove to be telling. Utah has a strong bench, led by veterans Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw and the Aussie flavour of Dante Exum and Joe Ingles.
Without Austin Rivers, the Clippers bench becomes weaker, with Raymond Felton likely to play more minutes. The scoring ability of Jamal Crawford (formally known as Jamal Crossover) and Marreese Speights will be important in giving their starters rest.
Most likely this will be a close, entertaining series. Expect tensions to become high for the Clippers if things do not go their way, and expect a rowdy home crowd awaiting Utah in game three.
My prediction: Clippers in 7