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The 'beauty of the team' helps Jazz weather Clippers' rally to take 2-0 lead in series

Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum (33) defends as Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, left, goes to the basket during the first half of Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)



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SALT LAKE CITY — The Los Angeles Clippers were trying to find anything to slow down Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz.

Drop big coverage? Of course that didn't work.

Blitz the pick and roll? That didn't either.

Switch everything? Not on this night.

There was also a point in the third quarter where it looked like the Jazz were going to put the Clippers away with relative ease. LA had thrown just about everything at the wall and nothing had stuck. But then something surprisingly caught hold.

In what seemed like a last ditch effort, the Clippers went to a matchup zone coverage.

"We haven't played against zone in a long time," Mitchell said.

It showed as the once-hot, smooth-running Jazz went completely stagnant, with Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson taking turns hoisting up ill-fated shots. That defensive change may have cost the Jazz a 21-point second-half lead, but it didn't lose them their stronghold on the series.

Just about everyone else stepped in just as the right time as the Jazz pulled away again late for a 117-111 win to take a 2-0 series lead over the Clippers. The series will shift to Los Angeles for Saturday's Game 3.

The final minutes were more than stressful for the 18,000-plus Jazz fans that packed Vivint Arena. After spending much of the night screaming as Mitchell, again, went supernova, scoring 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting in the first half, the crowd suddenly seemed anxious.

A Reggie Jackson 3-pointer gave the Clippers a 101-99 lead midway through the fourth quarter — their first lead of the game. And Mitchell looked gassed, or hurt, or both, and the Clippers had suddenly found a defense that worked. All signs pointed to the series being tied heading to Los Angeles.

That when Utah's fortunes changed.

Joe Ingles banked in a floater from about the top of the backboard; Bojan Bogdanovic caught an outlet pass from Clarkson and buried a 3-pointer; Rudy Gobert rumbled in and delivered a thundering two-handed dunk while getting fouled (he made the free throw, too); Royce O'Neale drilled a 3 from the corner; and Ingles finished off the 14-2 game-saving run by walking into and nailing an open 3.

"It was no surprise to see them go out there, get stops, score and then get us up 10," said Mitchell, who finished with 37 points and four assists. "Joe stepped up big time, Bojan stepped up his defense, Royce has been a dog, we all know Rudy ... but the biggest thing is we could do it collectively."

The Jazz needed just about everyone — from Clarkson's timely 3s late in the third quarter to Bogdanovic's surprising stellar defense on Kawhi Leonard — to thwart the desperate Clippers.

"The beauty of our team is that we've got a lot of guys that can handle the ball and make plays and obviously make shots," said Ingles, who broke out of his playoff shooting slump by going 7 of 10 from the field and 4 of 7 from the 3-point line to finish with 19 points.

Clarkson finished with 24 points off the bench; Gobert added 13 points, 20 boards and three blocks; and Bogdanovic chipped in 16 points.

In the first half, though, it didn't appear there would be any need for an end-of-game surge. Remember the 45-point masterpiece Mitchell had in Game 1? The young superstar picked up right where he left off in Game 2.

Mitchell scored 27 points in the first half on 11-of-16 shooting to lead the Jazz to a 13-point halftime lead. He knew when to pull up, when to hesitate on drives, when to attack the rim — it was a masterclass in reading defenses.

At least until the zone, and later the pain.

As the game went on, Mitchell seemed significantly slowed and robbed of the burst that led to his high-scoring opening half. Things didn't get better when he was part of a collision away from the ball late in the game. As a result, he was slow to get up from the injury. But Mitchell later said it wasn't a big deal.

"I'm great. No problems," Mitchell said when asked how his body was feeling. When pressed further, he responded: "I got hit. It hurt. But I'm fine now. I walked in here and if you want me to sprint for you, I can. I'm good."

Due to his teammates, the Jazz are good, too, heading to LA.

But did the Clippers find something going forward with their surprise defensive approach?

"I mean, we haven't seen zone for a long time," Ingles said. "... We get better at things as kind of time goes on and at the start of the zone, we weren't very good. I think we've got a bit stagnant in it and kind of looking at Donovan to make a play each time. As the quarter went on, or the time of the zone went on, we figured out some things.

"Now that we kind of know they did that, there's probably a good chance they'll do it again. So we'll be ready for it."

That may mean the Clippers could be back to the drawing board looking for another solution come Game 3.

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