Did Tyronn Lue find a checkmate?

Clippers have outscored the Jazz 198-140 after a defensive shift

BY DAVID THORPE

Move. Counter. Move. In the playoffs, there’s much talk about the chess of basketball coaching—’tis the season of tweaking lineups and strategies, observing, and tweaking again. Like a chef adding a pinch of salt, these are refinements.

Every once in a while, though, it’s momentous. Every once in a while, a coaching strategy changes everything. Every once in a while, a team discovers a way to play that their opponent just can’t handle—and just like that, the series is decided. That’s checkmate.

In Game 3 of the Clippers series against the top-ranked Jazz, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue changed his team’s defense. It has already turned the series around completely. The Jazz have been helpless and blown out for six quarters. Unless the Jazz can find an answer in a hurry—I have some ideas—Lue’s defensive tweak will decide the series.

What didn’t work

Coach Lue decided to start five non-centers in Game 1 against the Jazz. His team defended as they had all season: relatively conservatively, trying to prevent “blow-bys” and just stay solid. They ranked 20th in the league in steals per game, 22nd in turnovers forced per game. Solid. They allowed the Jazz to play their typical pass and drive game,”the blender” as Jazz announcers like to call it. They didn’t pressure Jazz guards fully, choosing to play off them some to help minimize drives. It helped Donovan Mitchell become a playoff star. He blitzed them for 45 points on 30 shots and the Jazz won a close game, only committing seven turnovers, well below their average, while making 17 of 50 3s. 

Lue brought center Ivica Zubac back to start Game 2, with a similar strategy and result. Mitchell had 37 on 29 shots and Rudy Gobert went for 13 with 20 boards, three blocks, and two steals. The Jazz had won two games, and All-Star guard Mike Conley had been out injured the whole time. He’s due back any day, after which … the Jazz would get even better.

With desperation in the air, the Clippers were ready for a major shakeup. 

The innovation

Lue went back to a centerless starting lineup in Game 3. Only this time, there would be no backing off drivers, worrying about blow-bys. All the Jazz ball handlers had defenders in their faces far from the hoop. If they drove, more help came. Donovan Mitchell was swarmed. 

While doing that, the Clippers also denied every easy pass.

There’s a reason teams don’t do this all the time: it’s a ton of work, and it’s a very risky defensive strategy. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to pressure the ball that much AND also be in great position to defend the rim. (This would be suicide against a team with Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic. Gobert is an elite player, but no post assassin.)

As Game 3 evolved, Clippers defenders gained confidence. Utah’s trademark offensive movement stopped. The Jazz “blender” couldn’t grind rocks. 

The Clippers couldn’t keep it up all game. It was too much work. But they did it enough to crush the Jazz over two quarters after a hot Jazz start. (Teams that win a quarter by 10 or more, and don’t give up a similar quarter—we call it the Thorpe Rule—are 36-0 so far this postseason.)

Game 4 was a Clippers dream, until they tired a bit in the second half. 

The wrong counter

I don’t know what the Jazz coaching staff said in response to the Clippers’ high-energy defense, but it looked like “whoever drives the most gets a hundred million dollars.” The entire offense quickly melted into “drive-drive-drive.” This is like telling a bug to attack a spider web.

Since the Jazz led 10-2 to start Game 3, the Clippers have outscored the Jazz 198-140. Two reasons this drive-a-thon has failed:

  • The Jazz have a roster that’s elite at all kinds of things; driving isn’t one of them. Mitchell is special. He looked eerily like Dwyane Wade—constantly, relentlessly, attacking the hard-defending Clippers. He got rewarded with 15 free throws, a playoff high (making 13). But he exhausted himself in the process. He finished 9-26 from the floor with a postseason-high of five turnovers. 

  • The Jazz have abandoned the principles of one of the best offenses of all time. This is an unrecognizable mess. In Game 1, they threw 247 passes and had 48 drives as the Clips let them run their offense. In Game 4, they had 57 drives and 221 passes. Gobert was a nonfactor, taking (and making) just four shots. 

Checkmate?

In 2015, David Blatt’s Cavaliers looked to be on rails to a title, with a clever and aggressive defense geared to slow Stephen Curry. I will never forget the moment, late in Game 3, when Steph unraveled it all with a shovel pass to David Lee. The Warriors didn’t win that game—the Cavaliers went up 2-1—but the Warriors had solved their one big problem. They realized they had always known how to beat that kind of defense. They entered Game 4 with their new approach, learned the Cavaliers couldn’t stop that. The Cavaliers won just two of the next 12 quarters, and the Warriors won the title.

The Jazz are the Cavaliers in this story—unless they can figure out some different moves.

Two moves for the Jazz

The first is Mike Conley himself, who is expected back soon from a hamstring injury. He isn’t a dynamic one-on-one player, but he is expert at something that would matter a lot against the defense, getting to the second box and making great choices—whether shooting floaters, or finding teammates. He’s also a great shooter, one of the best defenders in the NBA, and one of the NBA’s most effective players in plus/minus stats. 

Also important: with Conley, the Jazz have an absolutely killer bench lineup. Gobert and Conley with different combinations of reserves are among the best lineups in the league. His return can mean the world. 

As the Clippers have embarked on a high risk/high reward defensive strategy, I have been waiting to see the Jazz draw up plays designed to punish that approach—especially backdoor cuts. I’ve yet to see a single drawn-up Jazz play for a backdoor bucket. If the Clippers put this much focus on Nuggets perimeter players, Nikola Jokic would have a field day. He’s a threat to score at the rim. He has great hands. And his passes are art. Anyone of his teammates who was overplayed behind 3 could use a hard cut and end up with a dunk. 

Quin Snyder’s Jazz don’t have Jokic, but they do have passing and cutting. As Clipper defenders race to guard shooters behind 3, they’re begging to be left in the dust by a hard cut. 

Handoffs are just a nightmare to guard. What do you do with a player with his back to the basket and a teammate cutting hard by his shoulder? Laser in on the cutter, and the ball-handler will fake the handoff, turn the other way and make SportsCenter with a dunk, or a lob to Gobert. 

Reserve forward Georges Niang has tried it a couple of times, and it has worked perfectly. Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Donovan Mitchell can all play that game. 

But it’s just not something the Jazz do very often. I’m not confident they’ll start now.

One other way the Jazz could win

For six quarters of this series, the Clippers burned with the defensive effort and intensity of a title team. Can we be sure it will continue? We cannot. The Clippers have had the ingredients of a title team all season—but finished tied with the Nuggets for the league’s fifth-best record. It’s entirely possible the Clippers will let the Jazz off the hook. 

In Game 5 tonight, I’ll be watching to see who leads at halftime. If it’s the Clippers, that’s likely a sign Lue’s move has decided the series. If it’s the Jazz, look out: this might end up being the series of the year, ten quarters of intense basketball ending in a thrilling Game 7.


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