The Jazz couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start Tuesday night. In the first quarter of Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Clippers, they shot 5 of 28 from the field in the first quarter, including a stretch of 20 straight field goal attempts without a make.
So how did the Jazz end up with a 112-109 win by the time the final buzzer sounded? Well, a 45-point outburst from Donovan Mitchell definitely helped. But as Jazz coach Quin Snyder noted during his postgame media availability, Utah’s defense kept the team alive when its offense was sputtering.
“I thought we settled in. I thought Donovan settled in. As much as anything, I thought we threw ourselves into the defensive end,” Snyder said. “We’ve talked about trying to continue to push the ball and move the ball. When we struggle, it’s when the ball stops. They’re so good defensively, staying in front of you. If the ball stops, it makes it a lot harder.
“We’ve had games where we’ve not shot it well, and those are the kind of games you have to rely on your defense.”
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On the final possession of Game 1, Utah had to lean on that defense to secure the victory. After Mitchell failed to hit a tough midrange jumper, Los Angeles guard Rajon Rondo snagged the rebound and brought the ball up the floor with less than 20 seconds on the clock and the Clippers facing a three-point deficit.
Here is the full play, which features a terrific block by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert:
The exciting ending was a product of a Jazz defense that scrambled but stayed solid — and a Clippers offense that missed its opportunities.
Rondo hands the ball off to Kawhi Leonard to start the possession. Mitchell switches with Royce O’Neale, so the Jazz are in good shape. Leonard then flips the ball to Paul George, and O’Neale switches onto George. This switch is not as clean as the first one, though. Joe Ingles sprints and recovers to Leonard, who is clearly hunting for a game-tying triple.
Ingles deserves a ton of credit on this play. He closes out hard not once, but twice against Leonard. He manages to pressure Leonard without fouling, forcing him to pass to Marcus Morris in the corner.
When Gobert initially contests Morris’ 3-point attempt, he is out of control and leaves his feet. Instead of seeking out contact and drawing a shooting foul, Morris sidesteps Gobert and repositions himself.
In addition to letting Gobert off the hook, Morris also doesn’t see Leonard cutting back toward the wing. Leonard had more than enough time left to catch and fire. This is on both Morris for having tunnel vision and Leonard for not demanding the ball back more quickly.
Once Morris locks in on the basket, it’s already over. Gobert is simply too long, and he swats away the Clippers’ last remaining hopes.
One major thing to keep in mind here: Los Angeles coach Tyronn Lue had a timeout, but he chose not to use it.
“I didn’t want them to take Gobert out of the game and having to switch their guys in, or have time to talk about it as a team, if they wanted to foul or not,” Lue said. “I just thought getting a stop, getting out on the break with Gobert on the floor would generate an open 3. But he did a good job of closing out to the corner. I gotta watch it, but that’s the best time to get an open 3, especially when a team doesn’t know if they’re going to foul or what they’re going to do coming down in transition.”
As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20-20. If Lue calls a timeout in that situation, perhaps Snyder tells his players to foul, but the Clippers likely find a cleaner look than the one Morris got if the Jazz play it straight up. Then again, Utah may have shut the door on Los Angeles anyway.
When it came down to it, the Clippers trusted their offense, and the Jazz relied on their defense. Utah took this round, but we may be in for a long fight.