SALT LAKE CITY — Their work in Los Angeles accomplished, even if not to absolute satisfaction, the Jazz are returning home with the goal of taking command of the first-round playoff series with the Clippers.
But judging by the latest body of evidence, it won’t be easy to win the next two games at Vivint Arena. After losing the first game, the Clippers delivered a strong message Tuesday by seizing control in Game 2 right from the start on the way to winning 99-91 to even the series at 1-1.
All along, since the Clippers secured home-court advantage by winning the season series between the two teams, Jazz had no choice but to take one game at the Staples Center to advance to the second round. Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beater secured the victory last Saturday and, in the process, established a new objective.
The problem was, the Jazz never really found a way to consistently stop the Clippers in Game 2. And the way the Clippers dominated in the paint has to give their opponent a sense of nervousness despite coming home.
“We just wanted to try to be aggressive,” said Clippers' point guard Chris Paul.
Shooting 65 percent from the field in the first quarter, the Clippers raced to a 29-18 lead. The Jazz, unable to match the home team’s sense of urgency, were outscored 20-0 on points in the paint in the first 12 minutes as the Clippers converted on an assortment of lob dunks and easy shots at the basket.
From there, the Jazz were able to hang around long enough to make the game interesting. But each time they were able to get within two possessions, Paul made a big perimeter shot or his teammates took the ball to the basket.
You know your defense is not putting up enough resistance when the ancient Paul Pierce is able to take the ball at the free-throw line and drive down the left side uncontested for an easy layup as he did late in the third quarter. The 39-year-old, who will mercifully retire after the Clippers lose in the playoffs, played in only 25 games in the regular season.
Yeah, the Jazz miss the injured Rudy Gobert. As if there were any doubt.
In this era of 3-point shooting, old-fashioned big men still matter on the defensive end. With the game’s best rim protector out injured, the Clippers exploited Gobert’s absence in a manner they didn’t do after he went down on the first possession of the series.
"We're not as good without Rudy, there's no way around that," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said before the game. "But that doesn't mean we can't compete."
DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers’ All-Star center, exposed Utah’s hole in the middle by scoring 10 points in the first quarter on 5-of-6 shooting. The total matched all of Jordan’s output in the first game.
The Jazz followed suit in the second quarter. With Jordan on the bench resting, the Jazz managed enough easy baskets to trim the deficit to five points. But the Clippers restored order once their big man re-entered the game.
By halftime, showing no fear in attacking the basket, Jordan and Blake Griffin combined for 27 points. The Clippers enjoyed an overwhelming 34-16 advantage on points in the paint in the first half (they finished with 60 points). The situation replayed itself late in the third quarter when Jordan again sat down. He eventually fouled out after posting 18 points and 15 rebounds.
Clearly, winning without Gobert is going to be a monumental task. Obviously, the combination of Derrick Favors and Jeff Withey manning the middle does not strike fear in the Clippers’ collective heart.
All is not lost, though, even if Gobert’s injury keeps him out for the entire series. As much as the Clippers played at the rim offensively, they still could never entirely shake the Jazz. It’s not like the Clippers were in a laugher up by 20 points.
This is still a competent team, capable of beating the Clippers again in the postseason. But expecting another three wins to close out the Clippers without Gobert might be too much to ask.
"There's no sense lamenting his absence," Snyder said, "we've just got to figure out how to be better."