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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz lost. That's a statement that hasn't been said in a while.
Utah's 116-112 loss to a full-strength Clippers squad Friday in Los Angeles was the Jazz's first loss of the month. It ended a nine-game winning streak and was just the team's second defeat in the last 22 games — a stretch that dates back to Jan. 8.
It's been a stretch that has made just about everyone around the NBA take notice, including the top teams in the league. Unlike Wednesday's game, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard, Paul Geoge and Nic Batum back in the lineup, and they wanted this one.
If you were looking for a sign the Jazz had ascended toward championship contention, it's how seriously the Clippers took Friday's game. For maybe the first time all season, the Jazz experienced playing against a locked-in elite defense. LA played with a playoff-level intensity on the perimeter that stalled the pass-happy Jazz offense that has won many fans over the last seven weeks.
The Jazz were 12-of-34 from 3-point range, but unlike some of the other games when they've struggled from the perimeter, this wasn't simply a matter of missed shots. The Clippers made Utah uncomfortable and often stopped the Jazz's ball movement. But it wasn't all bad.
"I like how we competed," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "These are the games that we've talked about. Whether you win them (or not) — obviously be nice to win it — we're trying to get better. And that's where our mindset is. And as disappointed as you are that you don't win the game, this is another situation that we want to take and use to get better."
That's been the Jazz's mantra even as they rolled off win after win. It was never about the winning streak or the historic start, it was about getting better for May, for June, and for July. It was about getting ready for the playoffs.
Friday gave the Jazz a test run. They may not have won, but that doesn't necessarily mean they failed.
"This is a bump in the road, and a good one in my opinion," said Donovan Mitchell, who had 35 points. "I think this is one that we can look at and say, 'OK, we stayed with them but this is what separated the game.' I'm proud of the way we played and competed but there's definitely room for improvement."
There were good things from Friday: The Jazz came back from down 15 in the first half to take a temporary lead in the third. And then, again, came back from down 13 late in the fourth quarter to make things at least somewhat interesting late. Mitchell scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and hit back-to-back threes in the closing minute to lead the Jazz on a late comeback attempt.
Those, though, came after some bad things: The Jazz were down by 15 early and gave up a 7-0 Clippers run in the fourth quarter that put the game just out of reach. Leonard also picked up two offensive rebounds in a single possession down the stretch that helped drive the dagger into Utah's chances.
But, in the end, it was a game the Jazz felt they could learn from moving forward.
"It wasn't a bad loss for us," Mitchell said.
The Clippers, meanwhile, weren't shy in sharing how much they respected the Jazz.
"They're the No. 1 team in the NBA, and they're No. 1 for a reason," Clippers guard Pat Beverly said. "We got to give them the ultimate respect. They didn't go down. They kept fighting."
"Utah is a good team. They fought and you have to give them credit," said Leonard, who had 29 points to lead LA.
"I thought our defense was pretty good until the heroics of Donovan Mitchell down the stretch. And he got going," Clippers coach Ty Lue said.
To the Jazz, Friday's loss didn't delegitimize anything they had accomplished over the previous 21 games, but it did serve as a reminder that they aren't where they want to be yet.
"I think these are continual building blocks," Mitchell said. "Some of them happened to be through wins and tonight was a loss. … We're not here to be satisfied with what happens today, tomorrow — we're getting ready for the long haul, second half of the season and playoffs. We've got to continue to be this team and not just be this team in the first half of the season."