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Unlike when they played in the NBA postseason bubble last season, the Los Angeles Clippers have shown resiliency, a willingness to fight and an ability to make adjustments.
But just like when they played in the NBA postseason bubble, the Clippers will likely end their current season much earlier than expected with a second-round playoff exit.
Through both the ups and downs of their 117-111 Game 2 loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday, the Clippers displayed two qualities that should leave them feeling both inspired and frustrated. They should feel inspired they can punch back. They should also feel frustrated they cannot deliver both a lethal first jab and a devastating knock-out punch.
“We got a lot of fight left,” Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard said. “We’re up for the challenge.”
No doubt, they will try. After all, the Clippers already overcame an 0-2 first-round series deficit against the Dallas Mavericks. Who’s to say they cannot do it again beginning with Game 3 on Saturday in LA at Staples Center?
Based on both history and logic, that scenario won’t happen. No team in NBA history has ever overcome multiple 0-2 series deficits in the playoffs. And there is no reason to think the top-seeded Jazz will become that first NBA team to appear in the history books for the wrong reasons.
Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has become increasingly unstoppable with his 37-point performance marking his fourth consecutive 30-point effort. Jazz center Rudy Gobert kept showing why he just collected his third Defensive Player of the Year trophy by making the Clippers settle for jump shots instead of attacking the rim. And Jazz reserve Jordan Clarkson touted his Sixth Man of the Year credentials with 24 points that featured acrobatic shots from deep (6-of-9) that only he could make. And to think, the Jazz did all of this despite All-Star guard Mike Conley missing both playoffs games because of an injured right hamstring.
In other words, the Jazz have much more depth than the Mavericks do. The Mavericks have superstar Luka Doncic, whose effectiveness mostly dropped only because of a neck injury and occasionally because of Leonard’s defense. Otherwise, Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway only offered some flashes.
“They weren’t ranked No. 1 in the West for no reason. This is a tough team. But we’re approaching this the same way Dallas was,” Clippers forward Paul George said. “As good as they’re playing and as tough as this matchup is, we still feel like there’s moments throughout this game and this series that we’re making plays that are self inflicted. It’s a lot of uphill. But we’re optimistic that we can get this under control.”
Perhaps that is enough for the Clippers to win Game 3 or 4. Though their home arena is still limited to 8,000 fans, at least they will hear some cheers and not have to deal with the 18,000 Jazz fans taunting them during every play. But enough to win the entire series? Not going to happen.
Consider what happened in Game 2. Neither George (27 points) nor Leonard (21) dominated the way Mitchell did. As much as Clippers reserve Reggie Jackson deserves praise for becoming Mr. June (29 points), it’s not an encouraging sign he outperformed the Clippers’ star players. While the Clippers struggled from deep (11-of-30), they appeared just as uncomfortable with defending the Jazz on the perimeter (20-of-39).
This is not about the Clippers shrinking under pressure. Leonard fought through foul trouble. George stayed aggressive through the “overrated chants” and the missed shots with frequent trips to the foul line (9-of-9). Although Clippers coach Ty Lue has yet to find a rotation he likes, odds are he will find something that works relatively better as the series unfolds. He discovered that the Clippers’ zone defense could disrupt the Jazz’s offense at least for a few moments.
Despite all that work that helped the Clippers overcame a 21-point deficit, they remained vulnerable by the possession. After the Clippers trimmed the Jazz’s lead to 104-103 with 5:34 left, Utah closed the game on a 13-8 run.
“You can’t dig yourself a hole like that against a good team,” Lue said. “Then you have to expend all of your energy to get back in the game. Then you don’t have enough to finish.”
What will it take for the Clippers not to be in a position to claw back against a dangerous Jazz team? What will it take for the Clippers to execute the way they want to from the jump?
“We’re going to have to trust each other,” Jackson said. “We have to move the ball and move bodies. We have to be aggressive and make sure we shore up things defensively. Then it’ll probably be a little bit easier to communicate in our home arena. At the same time, we have to be louder and communicate more to eliminate confusion. We have to match up. It doesn’t matter if we’re cross matched. Shrink the court and be ready to funnel out and protect the 3-point line. We have to take the onus on the ball, take some pride and guard one-on-one.”
All of those ideas make sense. The Clippers can talk about those concepts more in film sessions and in walk throughs. But the Clippers have too much of an extensive laundry list to complete, while the Jazz can outperform them without as much thought required.
That might not sit well with a Clippers team that had championship aspirations ever since signing Leonard and acquiring Leonard two summers ago. But that’s a reality. A year after they failed to advance to the Western Conference finals by underachieving, the Clippers appear on track to do the same for entirely different reasons.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clippers will have a tough time overcoming 0-2 deficit to Utah Jazz