Venting his frustration after the Jazz had given up a 21-point lead over the Clippers and fell behind by two points near the middle of the fourth quarter Thursday, Utah guard Donovan Mitchell took a detour on the way to his team’s huddle and suddenly kicked out his right foot, flipping up the seat of an innocent chair along the sideline.
Kicking a hard, metal object might not have been the best idea for a player who missed the last 16 games of the regular season and the opener of Utah’s first-round playoff series against Memphis because of a sprained right ankle. Especially since Mitchell had been limping at times during a 117-111 Utah victory, including after a late-game collision with Clippers guard Paul George.
Not to worry, Mitchell said. “I got hit and it hurt. I’m fine now. I walked in here,” he said during a postgame media session at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City. “If you want me to sprint for you, I can. I’m good.”
No one took him up on that. Yet at the pace he’s going, the Jazz will leave the Clippers in the dust and sprint into the Western Conference finals.
Yes, the Clippers faced a 2-0 deficit in the first round against Dallas and developed a strong enough backbone to rally and win the series in seven games. Come crunch time, they inflicted the damage for once, instead of being reduced to crumbs.
But the Clippers have moved up a class or two in facing the Jazz, who were the NBA’s top-ranked team during the regular season and have won the first two games of this round without All-Star point guard Mike Conley, who has a mild hamstring strain. This isn’t Luka Doncic and a bunch of other interchangeable guys. This is a deep, smart team that hasn’t peaked but is still giving the Clippers too much to handle as the series shifts to Staples Center for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday.
“We’ve got to give them credit. This is a tough opponent. They weren’t No. 1 in the West for no reason. This is a tough team,” Clippers All-Star forward Paul George said after his 27-point, 10-rebound, six-assist performance Thursday. “We still feel we have a lot of possessions that we can clean up and a lot of possessions that are hurting us. That’s our fault.
“So as good as they are playing, as good as this matchup is, as tough as this matchup is, we still feel like there’s moments throughout this game, this series, that, you know, we are making plays that are self-inflicted. And so again, it’s a lot of uphill, but we’re optimistic that we can get this under control and go back home and one game at a time and try to tie this series up.”
Mitchell followed his 45-point scoring spree in Game 1 with a 37-point performance Thursday. “I think we definitely have to try to limit him out there,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said. “He got off to a great start. He got them going. You know, that’s the head of the snake, and you know he’s playing great right now.”
The problem facing the Clippers is that there’s more than one head to this snake. Mitchell on Thursday got strong support in the form of a 24-point performance from former Laker Jordan Clarkson — who was voted the NBA’s sixth man of the year this season — and an impressive 20 rebounds and three blocked shots from Rudy Gobert, who was chosen the league’s defensive player of the year this season for the third time.
Bojan Bogdanovic contributed 16 points and a stalwart defensive presence. Joe Ingles, starting in place of Conley for the second game in a row, had 19 points and had a team-best rating of plus-21.
“There’s been a lot of different guys here, and we have kind of been building every year towards this,” Ingles said. “We know it in our locker room and this organization what we have done to put ourselves in this position and the confidence we have got to keep winning games and keep pushing and, yeah, just keep kind of moving forward, step by step.”
After the Clippers took a 101-99 lead with six minutes and 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter, which inspired Mitchell to take his anger out on the unsuspecting chair, they missed nine consecutive shots. Not until Reggie Jackson drove for a dunk with 90 seconds left did the Clippers make a field goal, and that cut Utah’s lead to eight.
“We got good shots and we didn’t make them,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said when asked if he was satisfied with the quality of the shots his team had gotten. “Hopefully, next game, they go down.”
The Clippers need more than hope. They’ll need a way to stop Mitchell and improve their own three-point shooting if they’re going to ascend to a level they haven’t reached before. “We’ve got a lot of fight left,” Leonard said. “We’re up for the challenge.”
Utah coach Quin Snyder had an interesting response when asked about the strong personality his team developed this season. “You create an identity by doing something over and over and over again, and that takes time,” he said.
Any discussion of the Clippers and their identity always defaults to their sorry playoff history. That’s who they are and always have been. The only way they can change their sad narrative would be for them to reach the Promised Land of the conference finals, at least. The Jazz, so far, have presented too big an obstacle to think the Clippers will get past them now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.