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Alexander: Clippers’ task is not impossible, but it’s not easy

There are parallels, and there’s one important difference.

The Clippers are down 2-0 in a series, again. They’re playing a team with a dynamic player who demands special attention, again.

This time they’re coming home after losing two on the road, but those losses were to the team with the NBA’s best regular-season record. They do have a one-game winning streak at Staples Center, and the odds are it’s going to sound like a library compared to what they’ve faced in Salt Lake City this week, which might or might not be helpful.

So let’s see what happens as this Western Conference semifinal series against the Utah Jazz continues.

Some of the flaws were easy to spot Thursday night, in a 117-111 decision that gave the top-seeded Jazz the 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, DeMarcus Cousins … just about everybody but Steve Ballmer and Chuck the Condor (who didn’t make the trip) had a hand in trying to guard Utah star Donovan Mitchell in the first half, when he had 27 of his 37 points.

The Clippers, who started a small lineup in Game 1, started Ivica Zubac on Thursday night and fell behind 10-2 in less than two minutes, eight of those points by Mitchell. They trailed by 21 early in the third quarter. But Tyronn Lue’s tinkering also produced a zone defense that befuddled Utah for a while in the second half, leading to a 46-23 run over a 14-1/2 minute span and a 101-99 lead on a Reggie Jackson 3-pointer with 6:37 left.

This might be the Clippers’ biggest problem: That lead lasted all of 11 seconds. Mitchell might not necessarily have been The Man in the fourth quarter, but Rudy Gobert (13 points and 20 rebounds) made key plays and Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles supplied the daggers down the stretch with key 3-pointers.

Twice in two games, the Clippers’ defense has put the clamps on Utah for long stretches. Both times the Jazz recovered. Add the fact that Utah point guard Mike Conley has yet to play in this series because of what was described as a “mild” hamstring strain suffered in the Memphis series, placing an additional burden on Mitchell and Ingles, and you start to wonder if maybe the Clippers have already blown their best opportunity to put this series in a hammerlock.

“We got stagnant. They slowed us up. And credit to Ty Lue and the staff for doing that,” Mitchell said afterward. “But we haven’t played against zone in a long time, (to) find ways to get into the paint and do what we have been doing. And then on top of that, we wasn’t getting any stops. … The looks they were getting and the way they were getting their buckets, I feel like we can control that a little better than we did, in that third quarter especially.”

Bogdanovic also supplied some stout defense on Leonard, who finished with a quiet 21 points and just two in the fourth quarter. There are going to be plenty of adjustments and strategic quirks by both teams throughout the series, but the deciding factor probably will be whether the stars play like stars.

“As good as they are playing, as good as this matchup is, as tough as this matchup is, we still feel like there’s moments throughout this game, this series, that we’re making plays that are self-inflicted,” George said. “Again, it’s a lot of uphill, but we’re optimistic that we can get this under control.”

George has obviously become the favorite target of Utah’s fans, who booed him vigorously during introductions and serenaded him with chants of “Pandemic P” and “Over-rated” throughout the evening. At one point he was 4 for 13 from the field but finished 8 for 18 from the field and 9 for 9 from the foul line for 27 points, second on the Clippers to Jackson’s 29 on 4-for-8 3-point shooting.

On the ESPN broadcast Thursday night, analyst Doris Burke made a reference to the Clippers’ “casualness” after back-to-back turnovers by Jackson and George on sloppy passes. That might be the attribute that drives those who watch them play the most crazy. It’s not that they’re not trying, because they obviously are. But sometimes they have that too cool for school look to them, and George tends to be the most noticeable in that regard.

Maybe they need more Patrick Beverley more frequently. Maybe they need more Rajon Rondo, who inexplicably was a DNP-Coach’s decision on Thursday night, as Lue trimmed his rotation to nine (aside from 1:07 for Terance Mann in the fourth quarter).

Or maybe this series is just beginning to get good and we don’t realize it yet. Keep in mind that the Clippers aren’t the only club whose playoff experience in the bubble last year ended with a 3-1 blown lead against Denver. Utah had it happen in the previous round.

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