Tonight we were just tighter. We had more connectivity as a group. —Jazz coach Quin Snyder
SALT LAKE CITY — When Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder left Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers with injuries, the Utah Jazz didn’t flinch.
Been there, done — and won doing — that.
It’s not that the Jazz don’t need their starting point guard and their sixth man. Utah is certainly a better team with both Rubio and Crowder healthy and available.
But there’s something about this particular Jazz squad that kicks in when key players go down, and that’s precisely what happened as the Jazz squeezed the will and life out of a feisty and overachieving Clippers team that needed a win to realistically remain in the playoff hunt in the wild, wild Western Conference.
“Tonight we were just tighter. We had more connectivity as a group,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I think our guys understood what an important game this was. As you move forward every game matters right now in a very significant way, and I think our guys responded to that, particularly after the last game. I think they challenged each other.”
And they responded in terrific fashion, jumping out to a quick lead early on and then building the lead even after Rubio tweaked his left hamstring and Crowder had his eye scratched.
The usual standout players had their usual standout games. Donovan Mitchell added a few more highlight plays — including a mind-boggling dribbling display that eventually resulted in him scooping a layup in past defensive menace DeAndre Jordan — and scored a team-high 19 points. Rudy Gobert was strong while totaling 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Derrick Favors was solid with 16 points. Joe Ingles chipped in with 11 points and nine assists, not to forget one of the Jazz’s eight blocked shots.
But what made this night really special for the Jazz — and highlights something that could make them dangerous in a playoff run — was the fact that three guys off the bench made a huge impact.
Reserves Dante Exum, Jonas Jerebko and Alec Burks were outstanding. Utah’s bench was so good on this night that the Jazz subs actually equaled the Clippers’ starters in scoring with a combined 47 points. Most of that offensive production for Utah came from those three: Jerebko and Burks each scored 13, while Exum added 10 points, five assists, four rebounds and the block of the year against 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic.
Snyder lauded the Jazz reserves for not just what they did in this big win — which secured the 46-33 team’s spot in the No. 4 position for the time being in the volatile playoff race — but even more for what they’ve done behind the scenes. He knows how hard they work during practice and after practice and how much they do to keep themselves mentally ready for situations like this. He even complimented backup big Ekpe Udoh for going into the game for several short stints to spell Favors after he got into some foul trouble.
“I feel like the strength of this team has been the team,” Snyder said. “Guys have responded in situations like this where we’ve lost players during a game, too.”
The Jazz pride themselves on having a “Next Man Up” mentality and mantra, something that’s come in handy as they’ve battled through 217 total games missed due to injuries and illnesses.
“It’s been our identity since the beginning of the year, guys going down and different guys getting in foul trouble,” Favors said. “Guys just stay ready even in games they don’t play in, they're in the back doing conditioning, cardio, off days working on their games. They’re just always ready.”
It’s helped put the Jazz in a great and surprising position with three games remaining in the regular season. If Portland loses to San Antonio on Saturday, the Jazz will leap up to the No. 3 seed in the West if they win out. Utah’s final three games are Sunday at Staples Center against the Lakers, Tuesday at home against an injury-plagued Warriors team and Wednesday at Portland.
It’s uncertain whether the Jazz will be at full strength for those three games — the team hasn't released a medical update on Rubio or Crowder yet — but it might not stop them even if they aren’t all the way healthy.
“That’s what we’ve been preaching all year,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been through a lot of stuff injury-wise all year and guys have stepped up. This is just another case of ‘Next Man Up.’”