Editor’s Note: Kawhi Leonard has been ruled out for Game 5 due to a knee injury. For real-time updates to these lineups, check out our The Action Network’s NBA lineups page.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are locked in a battle in their Western Conference semifinals. With the series tied 2-2, the question is whether the Clippers have made significant adjustments to wrestle control of the series and if the Jazz have a sufficient counter.
But for bettors, the more interesting question might be whether the kinds of shots both teams are taking can provide an edge.
The over in the series is 2-1-1, depending on where one got the Game 1 total. But there’s an interesting trend evolving in this series that may have a lot to do with how it progresses.
Reliable 3-point shooting has never been more important in the NBA. In these playoffs, the teams that have made more 3-pointers than their opponent are 41-20 straight up (67%) and 42-18-1 (70%) against the spread. That’s up from the 65% straight up and ATS rate in the past 10 seasons prior, and the 61% straight up and 62% from 2003 to 2014.
In this series, the Jazz have hit more 3-pointers in three of the four contests, going 2-1 straight up, but 1-2 against the spread. The Clippers and Jazz made the same number of 3’s as the Jazz did in Game 3. So the Clippers have yet to hit more 3’s than the Jazz, and yet have tied the series 2-2 and are 3-1 ATS in this series.
This bodes well for the Clippers’ chances in this series. They have bucked a trend that says that the team that hits more 3’s wins the game in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the quality of shots is also not the same. In the two Utah wins, the Jazz held a quantified shot quality via Second Spectrum data provided to Action Network of a 49.9% effective field goal percentage but an actual eFG% of 56.25%.
In the two Jazz losses, they actually had a higher expected eFG% of 50.5% but still shot above that at 54%. This is to say that Utah has had the shooting variance firmly on their side in this series and yet are still 2-2.
This is what Utah needs. Mitchell/Gobert P&R. Morris jumps out again but Mitchell with a quick decision to split instead of dragging and allowing a double. Jackson pulls over to help, kick to O'Neale for 3. Quick decisions, make the Clippers rotate. pic.twitter.com/6QZZMrL4cs
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 15, 2021
This variance matters, especially with these two teams based on the number of 3-pointers they shoot. The two teams have combined to average over 80 3-pointers per game in this series, an unfathomable amount.
Neither team can limit the other’s 3s. In games since 2003 where the two teams have combined to shoot over 75 3-point attempts, the over is 84-62-6 (57%).
Both teams are shooting above 43% on pull-up shots in this series, that’s six percentage points better than the third-best team in the semifinals (the Suns who swept the Nuggets).
But the Clippers are generating the most catch-and-shoot looks with a defender at least 6 feet away of any team in the second round, averaging 17 such attempts per game, and shooting just 36.8% on them, the second-worst mark of any semifinals team.
So on one side we have the Jazz, who have shot better than expected, and on the other, we have the Clippers who have shot worse than expected, and neither team has any chance of actually being able to slow the other one down to prevent them from bombing from deep.
The Jazz and Clippers finished third and eighth in defensive efficiency this season respectively, and yet neither team can stop the other. That’s primarily because of their personnel issues.
The Clippers have had some success using a small-ball lineup with Marcus Morris, but that’s been on account of their offense. They’re still giving up a 118 Defensive Rating. Furthermore, according to Second Spectrum, Utah is scoring 1.46 points per possession vs. the Clippers when they switch the pick-and-roll.
But we’ve seen the shooting numbers illustrate a trend of Utah outperforming expectations. The Jazz may not slow down; they are a high-floor shooting team.
However, the Clippers’ offense should heat up, giving both the Clippers and the over value headed into Game 5 on Wednesday.
There is a broader question to be asked whether this series is the perfect example of whether teams are simply too good offensively for anyone to be able to defend.
“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do here. You’ve got Donovan Mitchell firing off the switch, you’ve got Kawhi Leonard just cold-blooded, tearing through guys, and both of them have all these shooters around them who are ready to shoot at any second. That’s the big change,” one scout who has done work on both teams said this week.
Used to be, you could get a guy hesitant to shoot. No one on either side is hesitant and the only way to stop them from shooting 3s then, is to face guard them and then the ball-handlers tear you up. The defense is screwed.”
But if that’s the case, then this series may simply not be about matchups or star power and even more than usual, this may simply be a series where shooting variance reigns supreme.