LOS ANGELES – Coming into the first-round playoff series between the L.A. Clippers and Utah Jazz, the big matchup that everyone looked at was the center position between first-time All-Star DeAndre Jordan and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert. However, with Gobert coming down with a knee injury 12 seconds into Game 1 and his status unknown for the remainder of the series, the attention was turned to the small forward battle between stellar defender Luc Mbah a Moute and another first-time All-Star in Gordon Hayward.
Far from a legitimate offensive weapon and at just 6.1 points in 22.3 minutes per game during the regular season, Mbah a Moute didn’t see much playing time for a team that liked to get out and run in transition. However, he’s far and away the Clippers’ best wing defender, and it’s shown when his four highest minutes totals of the season (all over 35 minutes) came against a couple of stars in Hayward, Harrison Barnes of the Dallas Mavericks, and Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. It hasn’t mattered who the opposition was; he was always ready to take on the defensive challenge.
“Luc has been our guy the last two seasons,” said teammate Blake Griffin. “You kind of throw him out there and say, ‘go guard this guy.’ It might be the toughest cover, it might be the best shooter, it might be the best ball-handler, it might be the best driver, he’s kind of like a handyman in that way. He can guard so many different positions and make it tough.”
Facing off against one of the league’s up-and-coming stars, Mbah a Moute has once again been tasked with the challenge of attempting to slow down Hayward. Utah’s seven-year forward had a career year scoring 21.9 points, reeling in 5.4 rebounds, and dishing out 3.5 assists per game for the Jazz this season. He shot just under 40% from 15+ feet during the regular season, a respectable number, but was held to just 6-23 shooting (26%) in three games from 15+ feet when Mbah a Moute was on the floor. That regular season defensive impact, thus far, has transferred over to the postseason.
In two games against the Clippers this postseason, Hayward has averaged 19.5 points on a mere 36.4% shooting from the field and 42.9% from beyond the three-point arc. His Game 2 performance saw him score 20 points on just 5-15 shooting from the field. Chris Paul said those were probably 20 of the toughest points Hayward has ever scored, and went on to rave about Mbah a Moute’s defense on Hayward.
“Luc was amazing,” said Paul. “I thought Luc did a great job last game, too. I see Gordon had 20 points. Those are probably 20 of the toughest points he’s ever had to get. Luc just constantly keeps coming. I think he’s so underappreciated. I’m probably Luc’s biggest fan all game long because I love defense. So I’m always like patting Luc on the back, like when everybody else is looking at guys making shots, I’m like, Luc, good job, keep going, because that’s what goes unseen and unnoticed, and a big reason why we won.”
Here’s a look at Hayward’s regular season shooting stats (left) vs. his stats against the Clippers in the first two games of this series.
Following his 33% shooting night in Game 2, Hayward credited Mbah a Moute and the Clippers’ defense for making life tough for him.
“I thought I shot the ball decently well from three, missed way too many twos,” said Hayward. “I feel like I could have gotten maybe better looks. But they do a good job of trying to corral our ball handlers into their bigs and force you into tough shots.”
Hayward has played 79 minutes in the series, with Mbah a Moute on the floor with him for 73 of those 79 minutes. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers plans to continue to match Mbah a Moute’s minutes with Hayward’s as much as he can, but knows obstacles may emerge along the way.
“It’s hard [to defend Hayward],” explained Rivers. “I think Luc’s been phenomenal. We’re trying to match his minutes as much as we can. Not having Austin [Rivers], we really dont have a lot of choice there. To give Luc rest, we’ve trapped a couple times, we’ve got to do certain things that we probably wouldn’t do if we had the other guy. One guy guarding Gordon Hayward is not gonna work unless you give him help.”
But can Rivers try to have Mbah a Moute playing even minutes with Hayward for the entire series? Well, Doc sees no reason why his guy would need to rest if Hayward is playing.
“Well if Gordon Hayward’s not resting, why should Luc rest?” Rivers said with a laugh. “That’s my theory. They’re playing the same minutes. You’ve got all summer to rest.”
Game 3 is Friday night, and we can expect to see Mbah a Moute all over Hayward once again as the Clippers look to take a 2-1 series lead.