SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz have won a string of improbable games to end the regular season and are now into their first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. After getting blown out on the road by the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz have rattled off three straight victories, with each one more impressive than the last.
First, the Jazz won on the road against the Golden State Warriors. The Jazz hadn’t won at Oracle Arena since April 2013.
Though the Warriors sat most of their starters for the duration of the fourth quarter, the Jazz were short three starters before the game began, missing Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors to various ailments.
Then the Jazz beat the San Antonio Spurs in their final regular-season game. Despite the game meaning next to nothing in the standings for either team, the coaches played their starters for long stretches.
In fact, Gregg Popovich, one of the most progressive coaches in the NBA when it comes to resting his stars, played both Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge for more than 30 minutes. No Jazz starter played more than 28 minutes, and yet the team emerged with a 101-97 victory.
Finally, the Jazz defeated the Clippers on the road in game one of their first-round matchup after losing Rudy Gobert just 11 seconds into the game to a hyperextended knee.
Down a starter, and arguably their best player, the Jazz kept pace with the Clippers throughout the game, and got help with late-game heroics from Joe Johnson.
After Saturday night’s win, here are five things we learned from the Jazz's game one victory.
1. The Jazz can win without Gobert
The Jazz managed to beat the Clippers without one of their two best players, and maybe the best defensive player in the NBA. Gobert went down after banging knees with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on the first play of the game, and any hope for the Jazz to win the game, much less a playoff series, seemed to vanish just 11 seconds into game one.
However, the Jazz used a combination of Derrick Favors, Boris Diaw and Jeff Withey to mask Gobert’s absence, and came away with a stunning victory. Gobert appeared in every game for the Jazz this season, and was essential to their 51-31 record.
The center appeared in only 61 games last season, and the Jazz went 33-28 with him in the lineup. In the games he missed, the Jazz stumbled to a 7-14 record. Winning on the road, against a star-studded frontcourt featuring Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, without Gobert proves the Jazz frontcourt can compete with anyone in the league.
However, even though the Jazz found success without Gobert, they’d prefer to have him back as soon as he’s available. He’s been ruled out of game two, but will be re-evaluated game-to-game after that.
2. Hayward can win in the playoffs
Hayward doesn’t have the name value that Griffin, Jordan or Chris Paul currently have in the NBA, but he showed that even shorthanded, he can go on the road in the playoffs and emerge victorious against fellow NBA stars. In Hayward’s first playoff appearance, a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward performed miserably. He shot 18 percent from the floor and 8 percent from the 3-point line, in 30 minutes a game.
Though Hayward didn’t have his most efficient scoring night on Saturday (19 points, 7/18 FGs, 0-1 3-pointers), he made up for it elsewhere. When Gobert went down, Hayward took over the role of rebounder, snaring 10 boards, equaling his second highest total of the season.
The next highest rebounding total on the Jazz belonged to Derrick Favors, who procured just six in 32 minutes. Hayward willed the Jazz to victory, even when the odds were stacked against them. That’s what All-Stars do, and Hayward has proved he belongs.
3. Go-to scorers are crucial
While Hayward struggled to find his scoring touch through most of the night, Joe Johnson appeared right at home at the Staples Center, leading the Jazz with 21 points on 9-14 shooting.
No basket was bigger than his game-winner, but prior to that, he allowed the Jazz to keep pace with the Clippers’ high-powered offense by sinking three of his four 3-point attempts. Johnson has earned the nickname Iso Joe, and it’s appropriate, as he’s clearly the Jazz's best isolation scorer.
The Clippers needed a go-to scorer as well, and got it from Paul. The superstar PG led his team in the second half, amassing 20 points over the third and fourth quarters. Paul tied the game with just seconds remaining before Johnson went coast-to-coast for the game winner.
Neither team would have offered much competition without their go-to scorers, but because of them, the game went down to the wire.
Both teams will need to monitor the issue this offseason, as Johnson will turn 36 this summer, and will enter his 17th season in the league with the Jazz next year. Paul will likely opt out of his contract in July, and will be free to sign elsewhere.
If the Clippers are eliminated early in the postseason, don’t be surprised to see Paul in a different uniform to begin the 2018 season.
4. Quin Snyder is an upper-echelon head coach
I can’t think of a more difficult hand to be dealt to a head coach than being on the road, in his first playoff game as a coach, against a far more experienced roster, while losing your star center on the first play of the game. And yet, Snyder’s team emerged with a victory.
Opposing head coach Doc Rivers somehow used the Gobert injury as an excuse for his team losing.
“With Gobert going down, in some ways, that helped them,” Rivers said. “They got small, they stretched the floor, which hurt us a little bit.”
Though Favors is more of a threat from the mid-range than Gobert, the deepest shot he made on Saturday night was from 4 feet. He only attempted two shots outside of the paint all game. Favors' 15 points on 7-10 shooting are a very similar output to what the Jazz have come to expect from Gobert.
The Jazz also dominated the pace of game one. The Jazz played at the slowest pace of any team in the NBA of the season, averaging 91.6 possessions per game, while the Clippers are middle of the pack with just over 96 possessions per game.
Game one featured 91.9 possessions, nearly identical to the Jazz comfort zone, and it helped them earn the victory. Snyder’s best coaching came in the game’s final possession, when he opted to not call a timeout after the Clippers tied the game at 95 with 13 seconds remaining.
Knowing that a timeout would allow Rivers to place his best defensive unit on the floor, Snyder trusted Johnson with the ball in his hands against Jamal Crawford, one of the league’s worst defenders.
Snyder is extremely detail oriented, and likely has dozens of after-time-out plays for this very scenario, but realized active interference on his end would have hurt his team. Sometimes the best move coaching is the one you don’t make, and Snyder executed that strategy perfectly.
5. Favors has become underrated
With the emergence of Gobert this season, and having to deal with a stubborn knee injury, Favors has become a bit of an afterthought in the Jazz frontcourt.
Favors was once thought of as the the yin to Hayward’s yang as the Jazz rebuilt their roster, but has lost that spot behind several players on this Jazz team. However, when Gobert went down, the Jazz needed a rim protector, and low post scorer, and found both in Favors on Saturday night.
As previously mentioned, Favors had 15 points on 7-10 shooting, with no makes outside of 4 feet. He defended the Clippers’ Jordan admirably, limiting him to 10 points and 15 rebounds, despite a size and athletic disadvantage. Favors even split a pair of free-throws late in the game to keep the Jazz lead at two, forcing the Clippers into a quick scoring situation on the other end.
The Jazz will need Favors more than ever with Gobert out, and if he can muster similar performances to game one, they’ll have a chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Though the Jazz may opt to make a change at power forward this summer, searching for a better fit alongside Gobert, Favors was instrumental in the Jazz's most important victory since he was traded for Deron Williams, signaling the Jazz rebuild.