When the Los Angeles Clippers decided, this past offseason, to replace head coach Doc Rivers with Tyronn Lue, much of it had to do with adjustments. Lue likes to make them, while Rivers prefers to stick to a plan, come hell or high water. (Remember last year vs Denver?)
There are pros and cons to each philosophy, especially in the playoffs, but one downside of making adjustments mid-series is that sometimes, in order to know what needs to be changed, a team needs to first lose. Sometimes twice.
Follow the Heavy on Clippers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content out of Clipper Nation!
Such was the case entering Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals versus the Utah Jazz. As in the first round against Dallas, the Clippers found themselves down 2-0 and in desperate need of finding a way to stop their opponent’s top player — in this instance Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who had, over the course of the first two games, put up videogame-like points: 45 and 37 on 52.5% shooting.
If ever there was a time to push the right buttons, this was it. After all, no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit. Fortunately for Clipper Nation, Lue was up to the task, as the Clippers routed the Jazz 132-106 and set the stage for a series-tying Game 4.
One change, in particular, paid the most dividends.
Lue Preaches 1-on-1, Then Doubles Mitchell
In the 48 hours following Game 2’s 117-111 loss, Lue had harped on the necessity of playing more aggressive one-on-one defense — on everybody, but especially Mitchell.
“First of all, just taking the challenge one-on-one against Donovan,” said Lue after Game 2. “[But] it’s not just him — we are getting beat off the dribble by other guys, too.”
After going big in Game 2, the Clippers went back to a small starting lineup for Game 3 and were aggressive defensively from the tip, guarding tightly at mid-court in many instances, and not allowing the Jazz to easily get into their half-court offense.
“I mean, they turned it up with the physicalness and aggressiveness, I think,” said Jazz forward Joe Ingles. “The one that kind of stands out is the first possession of the game. (Nicolas) Batum was picking me up and I think we still scored off it, but it showed what they wanted to do for the night, how they wanted to play.”
But when it came to Mitchell, Lue had something even more in store: double teams.
Often, when Mitchell had the ball on the perimeter, Lue sent two players his way, forcing the ball out of his hands and leading to a zero-point first quarter for the fourth-year star, who said he was surprised by the tactic.
“I hadn’t seen a double like that since like high school,” Mitchell told reporters after the game.
The Clippers had tried this approach against Luka Doncic in the Dallas series, but given that the 6-foot-8 Doncic is five inches taller than Mitchell and a better passer, not to mention more accustomed to being the sole focus of opposing defenses, the double didn’t work as well on him as it did against Mitchell.
“Just try to load up on him, try to attack him, whether it be sending doubles at times — get the ball out of his hands.” said guard Reggie Jackson, who had another terrific game, scoring 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting. “We [wanted] to limit the amount of time he himself got to attack and just play one-on-one.”
Of course, no strategy is foolproof, particularly against someone with Mitchell’s scoring prowess, and he rebounded from his scoreless first quarter to put up 16 in the second quarter and 30 overall on 11-for-24 shooting. But Lue was nonetheless happy with the effort Mitchell had to exert to get those points.
“You know Donovan is going to score,” said Lue. “Takes 24 shots, got 30 points. I thought we really took the challenge, everyone who guarded him, they tried and we competed.”
Jazz Didn’t Make Clippers ‘Pay for Doubling’
Helping the Clippers cause, especially as it related to doubling Mitchell, was a poor shooting night from the rest of the Jazz, despite what Jazz head coach Quin Snyder thought was plenty of open shots.
“I think if you look at the possessions where they were doubling Donovan, we got really good looks,” said Synder.
Apart from Mitchell, the rest of the Jazz shot just 25-for-60 (41.6%) from the floor. After combining for 40 points on 14-for-23 shooting in Game 2, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson had just 23 points on 7-for-26 on Saturday — exactly the kind of lackluster performance the Clippers had hoped would occur once the ball was out of Mitchell’s hands.
“We just made an emphasis that [Mitchell] was not going to beat us tonight,” said Paul George, who played exceptionally on both ends, scoring 31 points and often being the second man doubling. “We’re going to force everybody else to play and we’re just not going to let him walk into shots tonight and get the looks that he wanted early tonight.”
“I think just we missed a few easy ones,” said Mitchell. “I think that’s definitely tough. They want to throw a double. That’s fine. I have no problem getting off the ball. We all trust each other to make plays and make shots, and tonight we didn’t really make shots and make them pay for doubling. And at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.”
And, as Snyder was quick to point out, even when the Jazz players opted not to shoot, their decision-making was not quick enough and their passes lacked precision.
“When a team really picks up and gets into you, you have to attack them, and when you do that, you’re usually going to have to get off the ball quickly and make quick decisions,” said Snyder. “Whether you shoot it when you’re open or pass it or drive it, [those] decisions need to be better, and when we did have quick reads, we had passes that weren’t quite good enough to be able to shoot and the possession slows down. It puts a lot of pressure on Donovan to create,” said Snyder.
While Lue agreed that L.A.’s rotations could have been better, he was overall pleased with the team’s one-on-one effort and how they forced Mitchell to work for every point.
“A couple rotations we messed up on, but the biggest point of emphasis was handling Donovan tonight, no easy baskets,” Lue said. “He earned pretty much everything he got, having zero points in the first quarter, but 16 in the second, he made some tough shots.”
Of course, Lue and the Clippers may have to make different adjustments to and apart from Mitchell if and when Jazz All-Star point guard Mike Conley returns from injury. Lue, no doubt, will relish the opportunity.