He's always hitting big shots, and that's part of his game. —Jazz forward Boris Diaw
LOS ANGELES — The Utah Jazz's first playoff game in five years couldn't have gotten off to a worse start.
It couldn't have had a better finish — well, almost.
Despite playing all but 17 seconds without defensive terror Rudy Gobert, the Jazz took a 1-0 first-round series lead over the Los Angles Clippers with a shocking 97-95 win at Staples Center after veteran forward Joe Johnson dropped in a stunning game-winning floater at the buzzer.
"He's always hitting big shots, and that's part of his game," Jazz forward Boris Diaw said. "When we get him the ball at the end of the game, we're pretty confident."
Johnson, playing in his 12th postseason and looking like it, led the Jazz in this gutsy effort with a team-high 21 points. The 35-year-old forward had one costly turnover late after being doubled, but once again he made big play after big play for a team that desperately needed all he provides.
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Johnson's bucket, which bounced high off the rim before plopping back in to the delight of the Jazz, came 13 seconds after Chris Paul tied the game with a floater of his own.
The Jazz opted to not call a timeout after Paul's bucket, and Johnson dribbled the ball up the court before making a move on Jamal Crawford to get his good shot in the lane. It gave Utah its first playoff win since 2010.
"I just seen the clock going down so I knew I had to make a play," Johnson said. "I just wanted to get as close as I could to the basket and it was a good thing it went down."
Gordon Hayward scored 19 points, George Hill had 16 points and Derrick Favors, who was much-needed after Gobert's unfortunate departure, chipped in with 15 points and six rebounds.
The ending would've only been better had Gobert not been injured before the first possession ended.
"I think it was very motivating considering the fact that he's a big part of what we do, especially defensively," Johnson said of Gobert's early injury. "You know, i think we felt and knew that a lot of people probably were counting us out when he went down, but man, we stuck together, fought hard for 48 minutes. We had ups and downs, but at the end of the day we came out with a win."
Seconds into the organization's first playoff game since 2012, Hayward made a pass that sailed way above Gobert’s head into the Staples Center crowd.
It wasn’t a bad pass. Normally, in fact, the pass would’ve been right on target.
Problem was, Gobert wasn’t standing up. The 7-foot-1 center was crawling on the court in agony, having just injured his left knee while setting a screen for Hayward.
As everybody in Jazzland, near and far, held their breath only 17 seconds into this one, the Clippers crowd went silent while Gobert squirmed in pain. A collective groan filled the arena air a moment later as the dominant defensive player was helped off the court.
Teammates Boris Diaw and George Hill helped Gobert awkwardly get part way across the court. Trainer Brian Zettler then joined Diaw to help the big man hobble to the bench. From there, assistant trainer Nick Asay and rookie Joel Bolomboy assisted the injured French player to the training room where Gobert was later diagnosed with a sprained knee.
Gobert didn’t return. His status for the rest of the series is unknown at this point.
X-rays on Gobert’s knee at the arena came back negative, but the center was transported off site during the game to undergo an MRI for precautionary reasons. That test revealed a hyperextended knee and bone bruise but no structural damage.
Gobert missed 18 games at the beginning of the 2015-16 season after suffering a Grade II sprain of the medial collateral ligament in the same knee. Hood missed five games and 12 days of action earlier this season with a hyperextended knee.
Gobert was in good spirits and was walking on his own with a slight limp at halftime, Hood said.
In a way, the inauspicious start to this playoff series was a microcosm of the Jazz’s regular season.
A player got hurt.
Things seemed bleak.
Other members of the team stepped in to help out how they could.
That’s how the rest of the game played out, too.
Even without Gobert, the Jazz put on a gutsy display of basketball against a Clippers team that won seven straight games to end the 2016-17 season and had beaten Utah three of four times this year and 18 of 20 times overall.
The Jazz looked frazzled for a few minutes after Gobert, who’s been the heart and soul of this team, left for good early on.
Utah called a timeout less than four minutes in, having only scored one basket and finding itself behind 7-2.
Things quickly improved after the team composed itself during the short break, with Utah tying the game at 9-9 and showing the Clippers that they weren't about to go down easily.
If any team can react to injury situations, it's the Jazz, who've used 23 different starting lineups and missed more man games from injuries than any other Western Conference playoff team by far.
"The good thing about our group," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said earlier this week, "is that I think we’ll be ready to adapt to whatever the game dictates."
Gobert was injured while setting a screen for Hayward when he extended his left leg and Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute bumped knees with the Jazz big man.
The Stifle Tower toppled over to the hardwood floor.
The Jazz, however, didn't buckle.
Utah took an 82-74 lead after a Hill 3-pointer and the Jazz held the advantage throughout the fourth quarter until Paul evened things up.
Johnson hustled to grab a tipped pass and sank a floater for a 94-89 lead with 1:09 remaining, setting up an intense final minute.
And then the tight-knit, deep Jazz prevailed.
"We’ve got a team that’s a close group. It’s one that gets along and is connected off the court, which I think we have," Snyder said. "It's a whole ’nother thing for the same group to grow and have continuity from that. That's something that’s been evolving for a couple of years for some guys, getting used to the system and feeling connected.
"Having guys in and out of the season has made that a little bit more difficult through the course of the year. It also gives you an opportunity to see different players and see different lineups and get different guys quote-unquote connected in different ways."
Though the fourth-seeded Clippers are favored to win this series, the No. 5 Jazz came in as a confident bunch. Despite starting the playoffs without home-court advantage, the Jazz aren’t settling on being happy to simply be back in the playoffs again. They believe they can beat the Clippers, who have the same 51-31 record but won the tiebreaker by virtue of beating Utah three of four times this season.
"The first step was to make the playoffs. The second step is going as far as we can," Diaw said. "We feel pretty confident about the chance we have. We have the same record as the Clippers. We feel this is a team we can compete with. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a battle, game after game. We’re pretty much the same level as this team, so we’ve got to play harder than them."
Blake Griffin led all scorers with 26 points, and Paul finshed with 25. But the Clippers, who've struggled to have postseason success despite a loaded roster, couldn't shake off a team without its best defender.
"We've got to be better," Paul said. "You know, they played harder."
Because they did that, the Jazz gained the home-court edge. Game 2 is Tuesday in L.A. before the series heads to Utah for the third and fourth games.