NBA Playoffs Preview: Clippers vs. Jazz

For the Los Angeles Clippers, it's been another disappointing season. So much so that we've been forced to weigh the pros and cons of blowing it all up. Still, with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out for extended periods of time, they managed 51 wins -- making it five straight years with at least 50.

The situation for the Utah Jazz has been quite the opposite. They're not looking to blow up anything anytime soon and despite recurring injuries to George Hill, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors, they've managed to win the same number of games as the Clippers this season. As a result, they're making the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2012.

That's great, but now it's playoff time.

Will the Jazz succumb to playoff jitters or will they rise to the occasion and send the Clippers home early? Will the Clippers prove that they can get the job done or will it be time to consider the alternatives in L.A.?

Which fate do the numbers -- including our nERD metric and algorithms -- indicate is most likely? Let's find out.

Los Angeles Clippers (4)

Record: 51-31
nERD: 65.0
Championship Odds: 4.3%

Utah Jazz (5)

Record: 51-31
nERD: 63.3
Championship Odds: 2.6%

Regular Season Series - Clippers 3, Jazz 1

Of the four regular season bouts between the two, coach Doc Rivers' Clippers won three of them and did so by an average of 14 points. In Utah's lone victory back on March 13th, they won 114-108 at home. In that game, the Jazz went 14 of 21 from three and finished the game with an offensive rating of 131.0 points per 100 possessions.

Their most recent meeting came at Staples Center just over two weeks ago. Favors was the only key player not to play as the Clippers took the game by a count of 108-95 behind Jamal Crawford's 28-point outburst.

On the season, the two Western Conference foes played at different paces. The Clippers' 96.1 possessions per 48 minutes ranked 16th while the Jazz' 91.6 possessions per 48 ranked as the slowest in the NBA. When the two got together, however, the Utah style of play took hold -- the average pace was 92.29 possession in the four contests.

How did the Clippers manage three of four then? Well, they beat the Jazz at their own game. Their effective field goal percentage of 50.3% gave them a distinct shooting advantage as they held the Utah offense to 46.8% on the other end of the floor. In addition, the Clippers turned the Jazz over on 14.1% of their possessions while turning the ball over on just 11.3% of their own.

Of the four factors, the Jazz led the way in only offensive rebounding. Their rate of 21.9% trumped that of the Clippers (19.8%) in the same way that they outrebounded them 39 to 34 on the offensive glass.

A lot of that damage was inflicted by Rudy Gobert, who totaled 5.0 offensive rebounds along with 13.8 points and 11.8 total boards a game. In turn, the Clippers' most impactful player was probably Griffin. Paul only played in three games and in the one he missed, Griffin put up 26 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in just over 33 minutes. For the total series, Griffin averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds, surely taking advantage of Favors' absences and limitations.

All systems seem to be a go now for the Jazz -- no more caution or rest -- so maybe things will play out differently from the regular season series.

But, in any event, what does each team have to do to get the job done in the first round?

How the Clippers Can Win

It would seem like the Clippers need to play at their pace, but as we've seen from the season series, that's not the case. Even when bogged down by the Utah's super-methodical style, the Clippers have done enough to win games by double digits.

What the Clips could do is continue their April performance to this point. Through five games this month, the Clippers have played their best basketball of the season. Their offensive rating of 118.4 is the highest of any month this season, and their defensive rating of 99.5 is much improved from their average of 105.8 on the year. And by putting it all together, the Clippers have been the league's best team in April, according to net rating (18.9).

Not so surprisingly, we can probably chalk this up to the health and cohesiveness of the team -- most notably Paul and Griffin. In their last five games, the two have combined for 45 points, 14.2 assists and 12.4 rebounds per game with individual net ratings of 29.5 (CP3) and 29.7 (Griffin).

If their recent play is sustainable, the duo (and the team) will be tough for even the Jazz to contain.

Clippers Player to Watch - DeAndre Jordan

Gobert presents a problem for just about all NBA teams. The difference between the Clippers and all other teams is that they have DeAndre Jordan, a player very similar to Gobert.

While Gobert ranks second in the league in total offensive rebounds (behind Andre Drummond), Jordan ranks first in defensive rebounds and is third in offensive rebounds. On the season, the two are nearly identical rebounding machines.

ReboundingOffensive Rebound RateDefensive Rebound RateTotal Rebound Rate

Against Gobert and the Jazz this season, Jordan had 15 offensive rebounds in four games and converted 6 of his 16 made field goals by means of an alley oop or putback. That makes situations where Gobert goes to play help defense or block a shot very dicey for the Jazz, because if Jordan can capitalize, he'll likely average a double-double, which would be a death sentence for the hopeful Jazz.

How the Jazz Can Win

To pull the minor upset, the Jazz need to share the ball more than usual.

In Utah's three losses to the Clippers, they out-assisted L.A. but only by a margin of seven over three games. The Jazz averaged 18 assists per game, which falls short of their season average of 20.1. But in their single victory, they tallied 22 assists to the Clips' 16.

That might not sound like much until you consider this: The Clippers, in wins, have given up 21.5 assists per game, but in losses, they've surrendered 25.6.

Unfortunately for the Jazz, they're not a great passing team, ranking 28th in assists per game.

The numbers probably point to the Clippers' inability to keep up with good ball movement and space-and-pace teams, which Utah is not. If they can somehow channel those principles, though, it could do the trick.

Jazz Player to Watch - George Hill

This season, Hill has played in just 49 games as the result of various injuries. But that's more than an adequate sample size for us to see that the Jazz are a much better team with Hill on the floor.

According to Basketball Reference, with their starting point guard off the floor, the Jazz produce an offensive rating of 108.4 and a defensive rating of 106.9 -- a net rating of just 1.5 points per 100 possessions. In 1,543 minutes with Hill on the floor, however, they boast ratings of 112.9 and 103.7, respectively -- an improvement of 7.8 points in terms of net rating.

Hill's defensive length and playoff experience will be needed most against the offense of Paul. For his career, Hill -- with a defensive rating of 105 -- has been a plus defender and is a giant upgrade over would-be backup Dante Exum. Exum has allowed opponents 109 points per 100 possessions in his first two seasons in the league.

From his time in San Antonio and Indiana, Hill brings 75 games of playoff experience to the table. And there's no underselling how important that can be for a young Jazz team.

Series Prediction

As we begin an entirely different kind of season, the Clippers and Jazz are separated by only two spots in our power rankings. Their nERD scores of 65.0 (Clips) and 63.3 (Utah) yell toss-up -- as do their championship odds (4.4% for L.A. and 3.0% for the Jazz).

Almost assuredly, this will be a tight series. A stout defensive team like Utah is made to fight to the bitter end. As for the Clippers, they have a lot to play for -- maybe even the future direction of the franchise itself.

Experience and narrative favor the Clippers. They have been here many times before, and they have playoff demons to slay. Our algorithms don't care much for those types of things, but based on regular-season performance, the Clippers have a slight edge all the same.

According to our algorithms: Clippers are 56.02% favorites to survive and advance.

My final prediction: Clippers in 7.