I thought we had some guys on our bench that were ready to go, and we did a good job keeping our focus defensively. —Jazz coach Quin Snyder
SALT LAKE CITY — Two years ago, the Utah Jazz were thick in a playoff race about a week before the end of the regular season when a shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers team visited Vivint Arena.
Once again the Clippers aren’t playing at full strength — the theme of their season — but the 79th game of the 2017-18 season went better for the playoff-seeking Jazz than the 79th game of that 2015-16 season.
Despite early in-game injuries to two key players — starting point guard Ricky Rubio and sixth man Jae Crowder — the Jazz cruised to a 117-95 blowout win Thursday night over a Clippers team that has overachieved amidst roster instability.
“Obviously a good effort on our part, particularly given the fact that we lost Ricky in the early part of the game as well as Jae,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of his team's fourth straight win. “I thought we had some guys on our bench that were ready to go, and we did a good job keeping our focus defensively.”
As a result of an all-around sharp effort, Utah improved to 46-33 with the victory, holding on to the No. 4 seed in the wild Western Conference playoff standings with three games to go.
Los Angeles dropped to 42-37 and now finds itself two games out of the final playoff spot in the West.
“They just beat us. I mean, they beat us in every way, so give them credit,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “First game I thought that we let go of the rope, but tonight you could see it early. It was disappointing.”
The win was a bit bittersweet for Utah because of the injuries.
Rubio left for good with four minutes left in the first quarter, experiencing left hamstring soreness. Snyder did not have any additional information to share on his condition after the game.
Two minutes later, Crowder was accidentally poked in the eye by Derrick Favors at the end of a play in the first quarter. He immediately reached for his face and hustled to the training room where he was later diagnosed with a corneal abrasion. He wasn’t ruled out from a return but never did come back.
The Jazz didn’t need them on this night.
Seven players scored in double figures — led by rookie Donovan Mitchell’s 19-point effort — and the Jazz shot a sizzling 53 percent from the field. The Clippers, meanwhile, struggled shooting 43.8 percent, including 3 for 17 from 3-point range.
It was a big improvement over the way the Jazz played in a defense-less win over the Lakers on Tuesday.
“Last game against the Lakers we came out pretty slow,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to come out here in attack mode. We were all locked in.”
That was no more evident than when 6-foot-6 point guard Dante Exum soared to block the shot of the Clippers’ 7-foot-3 behemoth Boban Marjanovic in the lane. It was one of two blocks for Exum, who continues to play well since returning from his injury absence.
“That was impressive,” said Favors, who also blocked Boban. “I didn’t think he was going to get that one.”
Exum might have been the only one who wasn’t surprised. As soon as Marjanovic got the ball, the point guard anticipated that the center would drive to the hoop to try to take advantage of the seeming size mismatch.
“I knew he was coming over and he’s not much of dunker, so I was just going to meet him as high as I could,” Exum said. “He’s a big guy, but I just jumped as high as I could and I got it. I wasn’t going to let him dunk it or anything.”
Gobert, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, seemed quite amused as he listened in on Exum’s interview. And the Australian playmaker, who scored 10 points with five assists, jokingly mentioned something The Stifle Tower told him. “Rudy said don’t steal his block.”
There was plenty to go around on this night. The Jazz finished with eight.
Jonas Jerebko and Alec Burks played well in the absence of Crowder and Rubio, each scoring 13 points off the bench. Austin Rivers led the Clippers with 19 points, but not having Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Jawun Evans available because of injuries caught up to this outmatched club.
“We were connected tonight playing as a team, communicating,” Favors said. “The rotation was on point. It made it tough for them. (We) tried to take away the shots that they normally make, tried to make them take a lot of contested shots, which we did. It was a good team win for us.”
The Jazz have two days off before finishing the regular season with three games in four nights, beginning Sunday at Staples Center against the Lakers. Utah then hosts Golden State on Tuesday and travels to Portland on Wednesday.
This was a far better outcome for Utah than the Jazz experienced two years ago when the Clippers rested starters Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick in what was essentially a must-win home game for Snyder's young team. In that game, Jamal Crawford led the Clippers to a 102-99 overtime win with 30 points while L.A. also started reserves Luc Mbah a Moute, Paul Pierce, Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigionio.
This time around, the Clippers’ first five included the likes of Sindarius Thornwell and former SLC Stars guard Tyrone Wallace, but the Jazz didn’t give this L.A. squad a chance to breathe let alone cobble together an upset win.
Utah jumped out to a 36-26 lead after one quarter and then built a lead as big as 30 points to put itself in a prime position to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
JAZZ NOTES: The Clippers have used 34 starting lineups this year because of trades and injuries. That makes the Jazz, who’ve had more than their fair share of injuries, look downright stable with their 14 different starting crews. There was a huge roar late in the game when David Stockton approached the scorer’s table to check in. On his second 10-day contract, the son of Hall of Famer John Stockton then gave the crowd even more to cheer about by hitting a 3-pointer in the final minutes. The Jazz gave a medical update on injured point guard Raul Neto on Thursday. He is “showing progress” from his left wrist fracture and will be re-evaluated in one week, which could possibly mean he’ll be back for the playoffs.