Fresh from the apparent re-emergence of Kawhi Leonard after a disturbing Game 5, the Los Angeles Clippers are in Salt Lake City, and no Cancun, tonight.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they will be just over 48 hours away from surviving the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 on Sunday when they take the floor for warm-up tonight. The Utah Jazz No. 1 hasn’t played since June 2, his last against the Memphis Grizzlies, who took on five games after leaving the first in Round 1. But the pace the Clippers have established meanwhile could serve to their advantage because rest does not always lead to the above. The Milwaukee Bucks have a full week to prepare for the Brooklyn Nets before Game 1 and are now down 2-0 despite the Nets having three days less rest. The Jazz experienced this themselves, they lost in the first game against the Grizzlies, which they won two playing games while Jazz was just sitting and waiting … and even sitting Donovan Mitchell before reinserting him in Game 2. (Obviously, it was also a significant difference, of course.)
But in Clippers vs.Jazz, typically, Game 1 is the one to steal if you’re on the road. In the last 10 years, four teams in NBA playoff semifinal history have hit the highest seed as they were on their way to Game 1 and went on to win the series: Miami Heat last year against Milwaukee , Boston Celtics last year against the Toronto Raptors (the Bubble for both, but still), the 2018 Cleveland Knights against the Raptors, the 2013 Indiana Pacers against the New York Knicks, and the Dallas Mavericks of 2011 against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Atlanta Hawks are the only team 2021 to get part of Game 1 so far after surprising the Sixers on Sunday. For the Clippers, against a Jazz team that has gone 31-5 at home this season, Game 1 is the most opportune moment to solidify their arrival.
As for those five disturbances where the underdog won a Game 1 road and series, in last year’s Bubble, the Heat had a week between games while the Bucks had two days, and both the Celtics and the Raptors they had seven days each. The Knights had just been two days away from surviving the Indiana Pacers in a seven-game series and have swept the Raptors, who had played the last four days before their 2018 series. The Pacers-Knicks series of 2013 began on May 5 after both closed out their opponents on May 3. And in 2011, the Mavericks and Lakers were four days away from the conclusion of Round 1 before facing off. All that means, rest is generally not a make-or-break factor. (And, for what it’s worth, only last year’s Celtics-Raptors series of those five went seven games. The Mavericks and Cavaliers wins were wiped out; the Heat won in five, and the Pacers in six.)
Just about high-end talent, the Clippers have Leonard and Paul George, that is supposed to canceling the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert tandem. Ma it is, by the way? The Jazz had been good as anyone throughout the regular season, and they won the series in season 2-1, albeit 1-1 with Leonard and George active. The Jazz are 4-0 in the playoffs with Mitchell, who averaged 28.5 points and 5.8 assists in 45/40/90 splits last series. But as the Suns shown in Game 1, the balancing act is important, and Jazz set it in the opening series.
Against Memphis: Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanović averaged more than 17 points per game. Only Clarkson shot below 45 percent from the field and under 40 percent from three. The Clippers struggled to find their consistent balance until Game 7, where seven players land in double figures, including his initial five. And at this point, they seemed to solidify a rotation after playing with different combinations before. In Game 6, Leonard brought them to the finish line in desperation for the Mavs, scoring 45 points on the 18-for-25 shot.
Leonard is the best player in this series, but the depth of the Jazz has been more consistent so far, and they will be more rested for all it’s worth. Leonard’s reputation reflects that of an elite postseason performer we’ve seen since his first NBA Finals MVP in 2014. He averaged 27.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. and shot 51/39/88 since that first MVP of the Finals, which is through a seven-season streak including 73 playoff games. Leonard will show up, but the other guys will also be if they go above and beyond the Utah uniform. And, of note, Conley is out for Game 1, which means the Jazz are at their starting point, thanks to a muscle strain.