NBA playoff notebook: The Jazz are a legitimate title threat

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The Utah Jazz finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA. But like any number one seed without a championship resume, questions loomed about their status as a legitimate contender.

Their Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Clippers provided a resounding answer to the skeptics. Donovan Mitchell followed up his 45-point performance in Game 1 with 37 points. He dominated in the first half with his scoring. When the Clippers decided to send multiple defenders at him in the third quarter, Mitchell was in complete control, finding open teammates on every possession.

When a double-digit lead slipped away in the second half, the Jazz responded. Everyone from Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to Joe Ingles to Jordan Clarkson to Royce O’Neale to Bojan Bogdanovic pitched in with key plays. Mitchell put the game away in the final minutes with a basket over Luke Kennard—the player drafted one spot ahead of him by the Detroit Pistons. They did all this without starting point guard Mike Conley, who has missed the entire series so far with a hamstring injury.

It was a masterful performance and one worthy of elevating Utah into the championship conversation. Utah feels like the better team over a Clippers team that still looks like they’re playing together for the first time during fourth-quarter stretches.

Mitchell was limping after the win following a late-game collision with Paul George. Considering the Jazz star missed significant time with an ankle injury at the end of the regular season, his health status will be worth monitoring and could potentially swing the series.

The Mavericks will tell you a 2-0 lead doesn’t mean much, but this series feels different. The Clippers needed a couple of all-time performances from Kawhi Leonard in the first round to win in seven games (Paul George is shooting 12-of-35 in this series through two games, by the way). Utah presents a much more daunting challenge. If Mitchell is good to go, it will be an absolute stunner to see this Jazz team lose four out of five to this Clippers team.

A few other thoughts…

The Bucks won’t solve all their problems by firing Mike Budenholzer

It’s easy to point to Mike Budenholzer’s rigid and often unimaginative approach as a major reason for Milwaukee’s shortcomings as a playoff team (I just wrote about it earlier this week myself!), but watching the Bucks squeeze out a Game 3 win at home against Brooklyn on Thursday, it’s clear a coaching change — an idea that seems to be gaining momentum if the Nets win this series — won’t solve all of the Bucks’ problems.

On paper, Giannis Antetokounmpo (33 points, 14 rebounds) had an incredible game in a must-win, but the box score didn’t tell the entire story. The Bucks scored 56 points in the final three quarters after jumping out to a 30-11 lead in the first 12 minutes. Antetokounmpo needed 31 shots to get to his 33 points, got another 10-second violation at the free-throw line (where he went 4-for-9), and led the Bucks with eight three-point attempts, of which he made one.

This one play in the fourth quarter perfectly illustrates Antetokounmpo’s shortcomings as a go-to option:

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Let’s be clear here, Antetokounmpo is an all-world player. He’s a disruptive force on the defensive end and can dominate opposing players at the basket on offence. There’s a reason why he’s a two-time Most Valuable Player. But he is not a capable number one option on offense for a team with championship aspirations.

This is not his fault. He is simply miscast in that role right now. Even in a win, it was painful to watch him repeatedly isolate his defender in the fourth in search of a basket. The problem for Milwaukee is multifold. Khris Middleton is being paid to be the number two guy but has a long history of inconsistent performances in the postseason. Jrue Holiday completes Milwaukee’s big three. He is one of the best defenders in the league, but his shooting numbers in this postseason mirror that of Eric Bledsoe, the point guard the Bucks got rid of in search of an upgrade.

The Bucks are technically back in the series now, but I imagine the Nets don’t feel particularly threatened, even after losing Game 3. We could be watching the end of Budenholzer’s run with the Bucks, but a new coach won’t solve the problems for a Milwaukee team who has committed a lot of money and years to their three stars.

Finally, shoutout to Nikola Jokic, the MVP who truly marches to the beat of his own drum:

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