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'Moments that he lives for': Jazz knew Gobert would come up big on final block — the Clippers didn't

Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert (27) and Royce O'Neale (23) defend against Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, center, during the first half of Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert (27) and Royce O'Neale (23) defend against Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, center, during the first half of Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)



SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell didn't know what it was going to be or how it was going to happen, he just knew that something good was going to happen. LA Clippers coach Ty Lue thought the exact opposite.

"I didn't want them to take (Rudy) Gobert out of the game," Lue said when asked why he didn't call a timeout to set up his team's final possession.

Here's some advice to coach Lue for the future: The Jazz aren't going to take the soon-to-be three-time Defensive Player of the Year out for a defensive possession, no matter the circumstance.

But he probably already knows that now.

On the game's final possession Tuesday night, Kawhi Leonard was forced to give up the ball to Marcus Morris Sr. in the corner. Gobert closed out on him, forcing Morris to sidestep and try to find an open shot. He didn't step far enough and Gobert blocked the potential game-tying 3-pointer to secure the Jazz's 112-109 Game 1 victory.

"I just thought getting out on a break with Gobert on the floor, we were gonna be able to generate an open three," Lue said.

To put it bluntly, he thought wrong.

It's not hard to find where that thought comes from — in fact, Lue isn't alone in thinking that Gobert can't defend on the perimeter or in space. It's partially why the Clippers liked the matchup. But in the game's deciding play, it was Gobert doing just that.

And his teammates weren't surprised.

"You kind of have just like a sense that something good is gonna happen. ... He thrives in those moments," said Mitchell, who had 45 points in the win. "We definitely hear the chatter that he can't guard outside the paint, so those are like moments that he lives for. When Morris caught it, I was like 'OK, big boy's gonna have his moment.'"

But first, a quick reset on the buildup to the big block.

With 1:19 to go in regulation, Mitchell put the Jazz up by 8 with a driving layup. It looked like the dagger against the Clippers' chances, but Leonard and Paul George are All-Stars for a reason. Leonard quickly scored on the other end and George hit a 3 to make it a one-possession game and to put Utah in a tense situation.

When Mitchell missed a potential deciding bucket on a pull up jumper with 18 seconds left, the Clippers suddenly had a chance to tie the game up.

"I mean, we were up 3, so obviously they were going to need a 3 to tie the game," Gobert said, recalling the final play.

Gobert stood in the corner next to Morris as George and Leonard both tried to find open looks at the 3. As Joe Ingles crowded Leonard, Gobert stepped a little to the paint, almost goading Leonard into passing it to the corner.

"I kind of faked help and I knew that he was gonna pass to Morris for the 3, so I just tried to contest as much as I can," Gobert said.

As much as he can meant blocking the shot entirely, sending the first capacity crowd at Vivint Arena in over a year into bedlam.

"Teams have been trying to do this to me, to us for years now," Gobert said of the offensive tactic of spacing him out. "I think I'm comfortable guarding any lineup — whether I close out to 3-point shooters and then make a play or still protect the paint at the same time. I've been doing it."

And he showed it on Tuesday night. Gobert contested 21 shots against the Clippers, per NBA.com, in the Game 1 win. LA's Luke Kennard had the second-most contested in the game with nine.

"You might see a clip of me dancing on the camera once in a while, but the truth, and the numbers back it up, is that I'm comfortable guarding any lineup," Gobert said.

That's the case, no matter the time and score.

"He's our backbone defensively, man," said Mitchell, who put his hands to the sky in a prayer and thanks to Gobert's blocks. "And as you saw it on nights like tonight, he came out there blocking shots, running the floor, doing his thing. When you get the iso's like that, you have the ultimate faith. ... I'm happy for him; we're all happy because he's showing the world what he's capable of."

Lue will probably take note next time.

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