SALT LAKE CITY — All the nervous anticipation started last year against the Los Angeles Clippers. Rudy Gobert flared out a few steps to set a pick, then planted his foot as L.A.’s Luc Mbah a Moute brushed past.
That’s when Gobert buckled.
Twelve seconds into the playoffs, the Stifle Tower had been felled.
He missed the rest of that game and two more before finishing out the playoffs. But the precedent was set.
The Rudy Watch was in effect.
Saturday’s Jazz win over the Clippers was just a reminder. From last spring until now, people wince every time Gobert even stoops to tie his shoes. Friday against New York, he became briefly entangled with a Knicks player and the two lightly folded to the floor, slow-motion style.
Then Gobert arose and ran downcourt, no problem whatsoever.
A wave of relief engulfed Vivint Arena.
Still, people worry.
“Definitely,” said Joyce Bedont, a longtime season ticket holder. “The other night when Rudy fell, I worried about that. When they collide, I worry that our guy is going to come out and be out for two months and then we’ll be back to the same stuff.”
That’s life these days in Jazz country. People tend to track Gobert like a baby’s first steps, wanting to let him roam but shield him if he falls. How did Utahns get to this place?
“I just try to stay present and deal with those things as they present themselves,” coach Quin Snyder said.
For the foreseeable future, Gobert will remain on a watch list — and not just for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also on the please-don’t-get-hurt list.
Saturday’s game with the Clippers stood to be lower profile than Friday against New York, when Gobert first returned to the lineup. He has missed 26 games this year, spanning two stretches. He came out like a lion against the Knicks, playing 30 minutes and scoring 23 points with 14 rebounds and three blocks — all under limited-minutes protocol.
Saturday was a limited engagement, too, especially after he had exceeded his allotment Friday. Soreness can set in, fatigue, too, but he logged 28 minutes against the Clippers, as well as 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
If it helps to be paranoid about Gobert’s health, the Clippers are a good place to start. They were so chippy recently against Houston that two Rockets players forced their way into the L.A. locker room, reportedly to confront Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers. No punches were thrown, but two Rockets were suspended. The Clippers weren’t blameless. They were just smart enough to limit their aggression to the court and immediate surroundings.
Last spring’s first-round playoff series between the Jazz and Clippers was heated, too, though some of that has diminished since Chris Paul is now a Rocket. Sans Paul and others, the Clippers are struggling to grab the last playoff berth in the Western Conference as they deal with their own injury issues. Saturday’s lineup included no L.A. players who appeared in Game 7 of the playoffs last spring.
The Jazz too have changed some personnel, primarily Gordon Hayward and George Hill. Combined with Gobert’s absences, they remain a dubious playoff possibility, 4½ games shy of the last spot — currently occupied by the Clippers. While the postseason is still a worthy goal for the Jazz, another should be just to get Donovan Mitchell and Gobert as much time together as possible.
The Mitchell-Gobert era in Utah is up and running. The two were in the starting lineup Saturday for the second straight night.
After an uncharacteristically poor showing by Mitchell for most of Friday’s game, he followed with a slow start Saturday, but finished with 23 points. Meanwhile, Gobert did his best to assuage fears. He did collide with Griffin and fall with eight seconds left in the first half. But he leaped back up unruffled.
Jazz fans can take that as a good sign.
Is it being irrational to worry about Gobert? He missed 21 games in 2015-16 with a sprained MCL. Now this year’s absences. Those aren’t soul-crushing injuries, but they’re not insignificant, either.
Considering the damage sustained since last spring, it’s not surprising Jazz fans will spend the rest of the season waiting to exhale.