The Los Angeles Clippers do not have much margin for error as they enter Game 3 of the Western Conference semi-finals against the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.
Tyronn Lue’s men are in deep peril after losing the first two games in Salt Lake City and know they cannot afford a third straight loss in the best-of-seven series.
“We all got to put our will out on the floor,” Los Angeles star Kawhi Leonard said after Thursday’s 117-111 loss. “See what we did in the first two games and try to limit our mistakes and keep going from there. We got a lot of fight left. We are up for the challenge.”
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So far, nobody has been more up for the task than Utah star Donovan Mitchell. The 24-year-old is averaging 41 points in the series after scoring 37 in Game 2 to follow up a 45-point effort in the series opener; he has made six three-pointers in each game.
Mitchell became the first Jazz player to score at least 35 points in back-to-back playoff games since franchise legend Karl Malone did so three straight times during the 1988 post-season.
Despite his stellar outings, Mitchell does not think he is carrying the squad.
“I don’t feel like I have to go out there and do everything,” said Mitchell, who assured reporters that a late Game 2 ankle injury was not an issue. “I think that’s a credit to the guys we have on this team because they can go out there make plays. Everybody’s elevated their game.”
The Jazz won the first two games despite not having the services of point guard Mike Conley due to a mild right hamstring strain. Conley’s status for Game 3 is unlikely to be known until shortly before the game.
Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson helped pick up some of the slack by knocking down six of nine three-point attempts and scoring 24 points.
Meanwhile, Leonard scored just 21 points in Game 2 and is averaging 22 in the series. Shadowed by Bojan Bogdanovic in the fourth quarter, the two-time NBA Finals MVP was held to two points on one of four shooting.
“What Bojan did tonight should not go unnoticed,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “What he did epitomises what it is when you talk about a warrior.”
More concerning than Leonard’s final-quarter struggles to Clippers coach Lue was seeing his team allow 66 first-half points and falling behind by as many as 21 in the third quarter.
Though Los Angeles battled back to take a 101-99 lead with 6:37 remaining, Lue knows the earlier flow of the game came back to haunt his team over the final 12 minutes.
“You can’t dig yourself a hole like that against a good team,” Lue said. “Then you got to expend all your energy trying to get back in the game and you don’t have enough to finish.”
That certainly proved true as the Jazz rattled off nine straight points without Mitchell scoring any of them. Rudy Gobert converted a three-point play and Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles drained three-pointers to give Utah a 113-103 lead with 3:07 left en route to closing out the contest.
“We kept fighting,” Gobert said. “Those guys are tough. They are not going to give up. We know it’s going to be a battle every single game.”
Reggie Jackson scored a team-high 29 points and Paul George added 27 to make it three Clippers with more than 20 points.
But through two games, Los Angeles have yet to prove they can handle Mitchell.
“I think we definitely have to limit him,” Leonard said. “He got out to a great start. That’s the head of the snake and he’s playing great right now.”
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