That was like a howitzer. That was like Mike Tyson in Round 1. It was a big punch with Rudy. For us to do that, I think it shows some character with our team. —Jazz coach Quin Snyder, on Rudy Gobert's injury Saturday
LOS ANGELES — Before the first possession of their first playoff game in five years had even ended, the Utah Jazz suffered an enormous blow.
Rudy Gobert, the fierce competitor they’d relied on throughout a 51-win season, crumpled to the court in agony after hurting his knee while setting a screen 11 seconds into Game 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"That was like a howitzer. That was like Mike Tyson in Round 1. It was a big punch with Rudy," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said when reminded that he'd mentioned before Saturday's game how well the Jazz have responded to taking punches this season.
"For us to do that, I think it shows some character with our team."
A sucker punch would have been preferred to losing Gobert, the heart of their stifling defense.
It was as if one minute they were happily seated in their airplane seats ready for an eagerly awaited journey and the next they were violently being dragged off.
Though clearly frazzled for a few minutes after Gobert suffered a hyperextension and bone bruise in his left knee, they didn’t panic.
Instead, they united — in a good way.
“Basically,” Jazz point guard George Hill said in an elated visitors locker room, “all our leaders got the guys together and said, ‘This is when we need each other the most.’”
“We didn’t have a choice,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles admitted.
“He’s a big part of our team,” Jazz big man Derrick Favors said of Gobert, who led the NBA in all sorts of defensive categories this season. “When he went down, other guys had to step up.”
And did they ever, resulting in a 97-95 upset over the favored Clippers that was both shocking and scintillating. It was Utah's first playoff win since 2010 and only the third victory in 21 meetings with L.A.
Step up, indeed.
"That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve been all season," Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. "When Rudy went out the first play, we didn't waiver at all. We stayed together. We made big plays all over the court. Defensively, we frustrated them. I think it was just a gritty effort by us."
While nobody skipped more steps on the way up this staircase than hero-du-jour Joe Johnson, it wasn’t just the 16-year veteran who helped fill the huge void left by Gobert’s absence.
“Jeff (Withey) came out and had a big game. He was really big for us off the bench,” Favors said. “I had to step my game up a little bit.”
The list goes on.
Spouting off statistics from the box score doesn’t do justice to various contributions, either. Whether they scored a lot of points — like Johnson, who had a team-high 21 — or only chipped in a bucket or two, every Jazz player found ways to help in this precarious situation.
It took Ingles’ screen that forced Blake Griffin to switch off of Johnson on the final possession to win.
It took a big effort from Johnson, Favors, Withey and Boris Diaw to counter the Clippers' bigs to win.
It took an All-Star performance of 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists from Gordon Hayward, who was pestered by stellar defender Luc Mbah a Moute all night, to win.
It took collective defensive exertion from nine guys to win.
It took executing the game plan that Snyder and his coaches drew up to fluster the Clippers offensively at home to win.
It almost seemed as if the Jazz had experience with dealing with crushing blows and unfortunate injuries. (If you’re just tuning into the season, it’s because that’s what they had to overcome all season long, with medical issues forcing 23 different starting lineups and 167 man games missed.)
“I think all the adversity we’ve been going through early in the season kind of put us in the best situation to seize this moment today as others guys were stepping in when other guys go down,” Hill said. “They always say things happen for a reason, and it worked in our favor tonight.”
It will take all of that — and maybe even more — for the Jazz to repeat that outcome in Game 2 Tuesday night at Staples Center against a very motivated Clippers team.
"They were more physical," Clippers star Chris Paul said. "What does it say? The series don't start until somebody loses at home? So I guess that started it."
Gobert, whose status the rest of the series is unknown, appreciated the effort from afar. X-rays were negative, and an MRI revealed no structural damage to his knee. Teammates said he was in good spirits and only limping slightly when they saw him in street clothes at halftime.
In an emotional and honest moment during Sunday's interview session, Snyder admitted seeing Gobert on his feet was a huge relief for him.
"It scared me," Snyder said. "It scares you."
It pained him to see Gobert crawling in pain on the opposite end of the court.
"I felt awful for him because I made eye contact with him. You could just see this kind of helplessness," Snyder said, getting a bit emotional. "Any time anyone invests so much and cares so much in something or about something there’s a devastating feeling.
"You’ve got to put it out of your mind in the moment and at the same time send him as much positive thoughts and things as you can. It was good to see him at halftime standing."
After the win, Gobert posted a simple but powerful tweet, saying, "My brothers." Snyder admitted he doesn't know how long the 7-foot-1 center will be out, but he's handling the setback in good spirits by all accounts. Gobert even said on Twitter that he was trying to crawl back on defense after the injury happened.
"It’s great to see Rudy walking around," Johnson said. "He looks normal. Hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible, but it was devastating. lt was devasatating."
Snyder is confident in his available players.
"I think we should feel that we can win without Rudy," Snyder said. "At the same time, it's a long series and we have to be resilient and continue to believe that. That's what we need to do, and obviously tonight was a big win for our group. We're not sure what the situation is with Rudy yet. It would be nice to get him back, obviously. It's unfortunate for him as much as anyone if he can't come back because I know how much he was looking forward to competing."
Jazz players, who can close out this series by winning three home games even if they can't win at Staples Center again, are confident they have what it takes with or without their defensive player of the year candidate.
"It showed tonight that we can. You wish that he was back and that that didn’t happen, but we’ve been dealing with this adversity all season long with guys in and out of the lineup due to injuries," Hill said. "Sometimes that's something that you can’t control. It’s things that happen. We’ve got a deep team with a lot of guys who can come in and lend a helping hand."
Just like they had to do en route to their first 50-win season since 2009-10.
"It’s been the story of our year," Ingles said. "Just keep grinding. Next man up."