By Rohit Naimpally
This is one in a series of guides that will hopefully be helpful in demonstrating how to use Cleaning the Glass data to analyze players and teams. Whenever a specific stat is referenced, a video will demonstrate how to locate and parse out that number on cleaningtheglass.com/stats. Unless specified otherwise, all data is from Cleaning the Glass, and all stats were current through the end of the 2020-21 regular season.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ second round series against the Utah Jazz was knotted at 2-2 when Kawhi Leonard was ruled out indefinitely with a knee injury. Despite the Jazz themselves dealing with injuries to Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley Jr., many expected Leonard’s absence to give Utah a sizable advantage over the remainder of the series. Defying the odds, the Clippers proceeded to close out the series with wins in games 5 and 6.
As much as Mitchell and Conley (back for game 6) were below their best, the Jazz did not struggle to score the ball. They scored 118 points per 100 possessions in game 5, roughly in line with their regular season mark of 118.8, top three league-wide. The Jazz shattered that mark in game 6 with an offensive rating of 132.2, in the 89th percentile of all 2021 playoff games up to that point.
Unfortunately, Utah was unable to stop the Clippers from pouring in points on the other end as well. Despite their league-leading regular season defensive rating of 107.5, the Jazz gave up 119 points in 94 possessions in game 5 (125.5 defensive rating) and 131 points in 90 possessions in game 6 (a barnburning 145.6 defensive rating!)
Utah’s base defensive scheme has its guards and wings chase ball handlers over screens and funnel them towards the mid range area, with Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert deterring rim attempts.
In doing so, the Jazz are happy to give up mid range shots while aggressively taking away the rim and the three point line; in the 2020-21 regular season, Utah allowed the 4th lowest frequency of opponent shots at the rim and the 2nd lowest frequency of opponent shots from three. Utah especially excelled in taking away corner 3s, nominally the most efficient shots available outside the rim.
The Jazz were moderately successful at deterring rim attempts in games 5 and 6; while a third of the Clippers’ shots came at the rim in game 6, only 21% of their shots in game 5 were at the rim (in the 9th percentile of playoff games.)
The three point arc was a different story: L.A. attempted 46% and 44% of their shots from three point range in games 5 and 6 respectively, with corner 3s making up a healthy chunk of those shots.
In L.A.’s series-clinching win, they attempted nearly a quarter of their shots from the corner, in the 100th percentile of all playoff games to that point.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue precipitated things by trotting out a small ball starting lineup of Nicolas Batum, Paul George, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, and Terance Mann. That five man combination played a measly 11 possessions together in the regular season, a sample so small that one would be hard pressed to draw meaningful conclusions. In that tiny sample, over 18% of their shots came on corner 3s, in the 100th percentile of all lineups league-wide. Those numbers proved a harbinger of things to come; in 94 playoff possessions, that lineup generated 16% of its shots from the corner, still in the 100th percentile.
The Clippers’ small lineup succeeded by leaning into its strength from beyond the arc, and by defanging the Jazz’s most potent defensive weapon. On the former, no team shot better than the Clippers’ 41.8% mark from 3 in the regular season. Every member of the Clippers’ small ball lineup (not to mention key bench contributors Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard) shot over 40% from 3 and in many cases, significantly more than that from the corners.
Moreover, by putting five three point shooting threats on the floor at the same time, L.A. forced Rudy Gobert to guard his man out on the perimeter. This meant that Gobert had more ground to cover in help, and then the same distance to cover when recovering out on his man. Gobert’s man would camp out in the weak side corner, ready to receive the ball as soon as the ball handler had gotten into the teeth of Utah’s defense and drawn Gobert’s help.
In transition, Gobert’s man would trail up to the top of the arc, again ready to fire; in the video below, watch Patrick Beverley in the corner directing Reggie Jackson to pass to Nicolas Batum when Gobert corrals Jackson.
The Clippers were merciless; even when the Jazz successfully snuffed out a perimeter threat, L.A. would pivot into another drive and kick sequence to find Gobert’s man open beyond the arc. Here, once Jordan Clarkson switches onto Patrick Beverley, Beverley drives and finds Reggie Jackson (whom Gobert has switched onto) for the corner 3.
The playoffs have a way of magnifying even the smallest pain points. Ultimately, Utah’s defense was unfortunate to run into a team with the perfect tools to expose the tiny holes in the Jazz armor.
Rohit Naimpally is the Innovation Team Lead at The People Lab, where he works on research to strengthen the public sector and the communities it serves. You can find his basketball writing at From The Logo, and can follow him on Twitter @rohitnaimpally.