Clippers must be on guard for possible return of Jazz's Mike Conley in Game 5

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Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley stands on the court before Game 1 of the team's second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Conley suffered a mild right hamstring strain in Game 5 against the Grizzlies, and he has been ruled out of Tuesday night's game. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley stands on the court before Game 1 of the team's second-round NBA playoff series against the Clippers on June 8 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

After Utah guard Donovan Mitchell served as his team’s primary ballhandler, scorer and playmaker through the first three games of this second-round playoff series, his coach Quin Snyder was asked before tipoff of the fourth game Monday whether he was concerned about wearing his young guard out.

When it came to initiating the offense, Snyder quipped that he didn’t exactly have many options.

“I’m not going to have Rudy [Gobert] bring it up right now,” Snyder said.

The response had the timing of a joke, but hinted at a truth that, for the Jazz, has become seriously concerning.

Four games into a tied series, the tight right hamstring of point guard Mike Conley has hamstrung Utah’s opportunity to knock out the Clippers. Without the 33-year-old point guard’s off-the-dribble creation for others and 54% three-point shooting in the playoffs, the Clippers have won the last two games by double digits in part by loading up their defense to take away as many opportunities for Mitchell as possible.

As Snyder said before Game 4, “we’re asking him to do a lot right now.”

Conley is questionable to play Wednesday in Game 5 at Salt Lake City.

“People don't even understand what he means for our team,” forward Bojan Bogdanovic said of Conley, who averaged 16.2 points and 6.0 assists during his first All-Star season. “And we are missing him big time.

“But we show first two games that we can play against them and we can beat them. So, like I said, we are playing 82 games for a reason. So we got home-court advantage and we've got to take advantage of that.”

Mitchell’s usage rate — which tracks how many possessions a player uses by shooting, assisting or turning the ball over — was 36.9% during the regular season and rose to 40.2% during a first-round win against Memphis, as Conley averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 assists.

Against the Clippers, necessity has caused Mitchell’s usage rate to jump to 43.4%. His scoring propelled Utah to a 2-0 lead, after which Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was repeatedly self-critical of his defense that had not guarded Mitchell one on one as physically as he wanted. One adjustment in the games that followed wasn’t to guard him one on one at all, but rush a second defender his way.

Mitchell has scored four combined points in his last two first quarters. He also isn’t completely healthy because of a sore right ankle, first injured in April, that he appeared to reinjure during Game 3.

“He’s playing through pain, so I think that shows his mental toughness,” Snyder said Tuesday. “I think it shows his competitiveness. Those are two of the things that have allowed him to improve the way he has.”

The Clippers have defended the Jazz with a mixture of coverages that change frequently but often have blitzed a second defender at Mitchell in hopes of getting the ball into a teammate’s hands, an adjustment the Clippers tried against Dallas’ Luka Doncic in the first round as well. When defended by Patrick Beverley, Paul George and Terance Mann in Game 4, Mitchell shot a combined two for 15 with zero assists, according to NBA tracking analysis.

“I thought Pat Beverley really did a great job of coming in and setting that tone for us defensively,” Lue said.

Snyder said that he hoped his players would adjust by firing passes to teammates quicker when a blitz is sent, and for those recipients to be more prepared to attack the Clippers’ defense.

Snyder on Monday said that Conley was “making progress.”

“We all know he wants to be back there quickly, and that's the place we're working towards,” Snyder said. “And obviously all the guys on the team want him back. And we know how he impacts our team. When you're playing without your point guard, it impacts everybody, but that's also something that our guys have dealt with and it's a challenge to take on, and it's the next-man-up mentality, and we have confidence in our group as well.

“We'll keep doing what we're doing and keep competing and hopefully Mike can get back and help us there.”

All-NBA team

The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard earned first-team All-NBA honors announced Tuesday, along with Denver center Nikola Jokic, the Mavericks' Doncic, Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Golden State guard Stephen Curry. The Lakers' LeBron James made the second team. The Clippers' George was named to the third team.

It is the fifth time Leonard has made an all-NBA team and the sixth such honor for George. George is averaging 24.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists during the postseason while making 50% of his two-pointers and 36% of his threes. Leonard has seen his 24.8 points-per-game average from the regular season increase to 30.4 points in the postseason, along with 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

The Clippers promptly sent congratulatory tweets for both players Tuesday afternoon, the kind of acknowledgment Leonard all but assuredly did not see. After the Clippers’ Game 4 win Leonard, who is not active on social media, said he hadn’t noticed whether his team had taken criticism for falling behind against Utah earlier in the series.

“I don't know what's going on in the outside world,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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