In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the #4 seeded Los Angeles Clippers (51-31) will take on the #5 seeded Utah Jazz (51-31). The Clippers won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 will tip off on Saturday at 10:30 PM EST on ESPN.
Of all the first round playoff series', this one projects to be the closest. The records are identical, for one thing and both teams have dominant big men and guys who can score from the wing. This series really could go either way.
The matchup down in the paint should be particularly fun to watch. Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan (12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks) and Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert (14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks) are a throwback to a different era when there were more dominant big men. Watching them clash down low will be reminiscent of watching Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing face off in the paint. There are so few true big men making an impact in the NBA right now and to have two of them facing off in the same series is certain to be a real treat.
While it will be fun to watch Jordan and Gobert face off, I expect the two of them to cancel each other out. Neither one will sway this series in either direction. What will ultimately sway this series is coaching, the perimeter play, and which star player is able to deliver the goods in crunch time.
In regards to coaching, I think this is a fascinating matchup. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has a ton of playoff experience while Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is making his first trip to the playoffs. That said, I think Snyder has done a better job with his team and really has the Jazz playing good basketball. The Jazz are moving the ball well, they are getting each other involved, and are playing defense at an elite level.
If the Jazz are going to win this series, Quin Snyder's stellar coaching will have to be a huge factor whereas for the Clippers, Doc Rivers needs to find a way to use his experience to his advantage. Doc Rivers knows how he'll handle close games in the playoffs because he's been there whereas for Quin Snyder he is yet to be in those kind of moments. It will certainly be interesting to see what decisions both coaches make down the stretch of close games. The decisions they make could ultimately decide this series.
In regards to perimeter play, the Clippers have Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Austin Rivers while the Jazz have Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Shelvin Mack. The battle in the backcourt will be crucial to this series. Both teams have guys who can shoot it from beyond the arc and penetrate the lane. Whichever group does a better job will give their team a definite edge.
In regards to the star play, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be expected to deliver the goods for the Clippers while Gordon Hayward and George Hill will be expected to do the same for the Jazz. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have more playoff experience than Gordon Hayward (first appearance), but George Hill has some playoff experience going back to his days with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. While there is more pressure on Gordon Hayward to have a big series, George Hill can help take a lot of that pressure away through his stellar play in the backcourt and also his calming influence. He's been there before and can help Gordon Hayward make the transition.
In terms of a prediction for this series, I have the Utah Jazz finding a way to win the series in six games. Salt Lake City is one of the toughest place to play in the NBA and I don't see the Clippers getting a win on the road in this series. The combination of altitude and rowdy fans is what makes Salt Lake City such a tough place to win. As for the Staples Center, that place isn't as tough of a place to get a road playoff win, especially when it's the Clippers who are playing. I have a feeling that the Jazz will steal a game in Los Angeles and hold serve at home.
In order for my prediction to come to fruition, Gordon Hayward will need to have a big series. He's an NBA All-Star and is the face of this Jazz team. If he has a big series and gets the help he needs from the rest of his teammates, I really like their chances. If on the other hand, Hayward shrinks under the playoff spotlight, the Clippers will be the team that comes out on top in this series. The Clippers are a very good team and we certainly can expect Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to step up. Gordon Hayward will need to do the same in order for his team to win.
Note: This article also appears on my Utah Jazz blog. Click here to check it out.
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