The breakthrough was stunning in multiple ways. The Jazz had not won a playoff game for seven years and they had lost eight straight playoff contests (to the Los Angeles Lakers) at the Staples Center, which the Clippers share. And they rescued a 97-95 victory, even after losing a five-point lead in the last minute. They won when Johnson's floating 4-footer bounced off the rim, the backboard and the rim again before tumbling into the net.
Now it gets interesting. The question going into Tuesday's Game 2 is whether the Jazz really have any better chance of winning this series than they did as of the moment when center Rudy Gobert won the opening tip of Game 1 — before he crumpled to the court 10 seconds later, with a hyperextended knee. (no timetable exists for his possible return).
What made this game so memorable was how the Jazz dealt with the emotional blow of losing Gobert, as much as compensating for his absence. "There was a lot going through my head at the time," Johnson said. "It was devastating."
Snyder immediately looked down the bench and picked Derrick Favors to replace Gobert, but he didn't dismiss the human side of the scene.
"I felt awful for him," Snyder said Sunday. "I made eye contract with him; you could see this kind of helplessness."
The Jazz have the home-court advantage now, but they're missing their best player of the second half of the season. What's lost for the moment is the opportunity to see how Gobert would have performed in his first playoffs and how that showing may have shaped the Jazz's future.
Could the Jazz conceivably win the series, though? Sure. Sloan's precedent of seven years ago is heartening, even if he was opposing Adrian Dantley as Denver's interim coach and Snyder is going against playoff veteran Doc Rivers of the Clippers.
The strategy is similar. After losing center Mehmet Okur to an Achilles' tendon injury in a Game 1 loss, Sloan made Kyrylo Fesenko the starter. Yet his primary inside players were Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, with Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles also playing the bulk of the minutes and Kyle Korver and Ronnie Price completing an eight-man rotation (Andrei Kirilenko missed the series, due to injury).
Snyder mainly used Favors and Johnson up front in Game 1. They will remain critical components in this series. Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles and George Hill also played 32-plus minutes in Game 1, with Jeff Withey, Boris Diaw, Shelvin Mack and Rodney Hood in the rotation.
Gobert played 81 games in the regular season, but the Jazz are accustomed to missing various players. "We've tried to adapt what we do to our personnel," Snyder said. "It's not going to change a whole lot of what we do conceptually."
The way the Jazz responded to Gobert's absence made Rivers say, "In some ways, that helped them. They got small and stretched the floor, which hurt us a little bit."
The trick is keeping Favors and Johnson out of foul trouble as they play extended minutes. The spread-out schedule of the series will help them recover from game to game. Rebounding will be an issue in Gobert's absence. He's also missed in the pick-and-roll offense and, obviously, rim protection on defense.
Yet just as a Game 2 victory in Denver in 2010 altered the outlook of the series, which the Jazz eventually won in six games, the Jazz do have some evidence that they can beat the Clippers.
Five years ago, the Jazz lost Games 1 and 2 by a combined 46 points at San Antonio, where coach Tyrone Corbin and his team were overwhelmed by Gregg Popovich and the No. 1-seeded Spurs and eventually were swept.
As the Jazz returned to postseason basketball Saturday, Snyder made sure nothing like that would happen in his NBA playoff debut as a head coach. And all kinds of possibilities are in play now, even without Gobert.
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