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Rudy Gobert’s gigantic night helps Utah Jazz overcome slow start, earn ninth consecutive win

Center posts 23 points and 20 rebounds as Jazz knock off short-handed Clippers 114-96.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots past Los Angeles Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Joe Ingles was sitting in a small anteroom at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, extolling the defensive virtues of teammate Rudy Gobert — both in Wednesday night’s 114-96 win over the Clippers, and more broadly — when the center suddenly emerged through a curtain.

“… And he’s walking in now,” Ingles told the media, before turning his attention to the Frenchman. “I was just talking about how good you are.”

“Thank you,” said Gobert. “No worries,” replied Ingles.

When Gobert took Ingles’ spot on the hot seat moments later, the Aussie suddenly reappeared and instructed the reporters: “Make sure you ask him how much he appreciates me, now!”

When The Salt Lake Tribune’s Andy Larsen obliged, Ingles let out a sarcastic howl of delight, followed by an amused cackle: “I want to hear this!”

Gobert, unruffled by the interruption, wryly claimed, “I’m gonna wait until he leaves,” then jokingly added to Larsen, “You can ask a better question now.”

It was an entertaining denouement to a frequently stilted evening that saw the Jazz struggle mightily at times — with their efficiency, their decision-making, their ball security, their ability to capitalize on Clippers misses and miscues.

What never wavered, though, was Gobert’s stellar effort in the paint.

Even as the normally-electric Utah offense labored to generate points early, the Jazz were never very far behind, as initial Clipper forays to the rim were substantially altered or dissuaded — to the point that they became pretty much abandoned as the course of the game wore on.

By the time the Jazz had found their post-halftime groove, started putting the ball in the basket with regularity, and surged to a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, Clippers big man Marcus Morris lofted a 3-point look that missed badly, prompting the team’s TV color analyst, Mike Fratello, to conclude that such a shot was a direct result of being “afraid to challenge Gobert down low now.”

And so, after Gobert wrapped up his 23-point, 20-rebound night (shooting 8 of 12 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the stripe) in Utah’s ninth consecutive victory, Ingles had zero problems discussing how such a performance, while statistically gaudy, was nothing really out of the ordinary for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

“He’s huge every night. I think it looks different when he has 20 and 20, or whatever he had — obviously, it makes it stand out a bit more, and everyone notices a bit more. But we know what he does for us on a nightly basis,” said Ingles. “He’s had games where he doesn’t have double-digit points, but he has such an impact on the defensive end. I mean, he makes all of us look good. He’s made me look like a good defender for many years.”

On a night when the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nic Batum and Luke Kennard, some might have thought Utah would dominate its short-handed opponent from the outset.

But Donovan Mitchell struggled with the aggressive on-ball defense of Pat Beverley. Bojan Bogdanovic never did settle into any kind of rhythm — seeing 3s clank off the iron, post-ups prove ineffectual, and cross-court passes get picked off. Utah was shooting only 34.8% from the field after the first quarter and 38.8% at halftime.

And yet, they trailed only 51-46 at the break, as the Clippers grew increasingly wary of challenging Gobert inside.

“It’s what he does,” said coach Quin Snyder. “That’s something we’ve talked about, defending even when we’re not playing as well in the offensive end. … We can’t take it for granted because he just impacts the game. He impacts it in a lot of ways, and tonight you saw it on both ends.”

And you saw it in both halves, too.

A team that’s been known for killing it in the third quarter did exactly that. Suddenly gone from their repertoire were all those unproductive midrange looks, as the Jazz got back to their preferred modus operandi of living at the rim and at the 3-point line.

Still, those improved offensive looks were largely the product of maintaining their defensive efficacy, then following up by unabashedly pushing the ball in transition.

“I think it really started from the defensive end, our physicality. They were really aggressive in the first half, and they were just playing harder than us. And regardless of who we play, we can’t really let that happen if we’re going to be the team that we want to be,” Gobert explained. “Second half, we picked it up, and by being more aggressive defensively, we became more aggressive offensively.”

Mitchell, who bounced back from a 1-for-9 start to finish with 24 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and four steals, credited his fellow All-Star for keeping the team going by providing a much-needed jolt of effort.

“He was the aggressor,” Mitchell said simply. “The stats show one thing, but you look at the little things: sprinting down the floor, the tips that he had, finishing through contact, dunking the ball — that’s something that really set the tone.”

Of course, pulling off a 20th win in a 21-game span, and improving to an NBA-best 24-5 on the season sets a certain kind of tone, too.

Following Ingles’ interview antics, Gobert let his own dry humor shine through.

Asked what he could possibly improve upon after such a performance, he replied, “There’s always room to improve. You know — I missed one free throw.”

JAZZ 114, CLIPPERS 96

UTAH (114)

Bogdanovic 2-10 1-1 5, O'Neale 5-8 0-0 12, Gobert 8-12 7-8 23, Ingles 5-7 1-1 14, Mitchell 9-22 4-6 24, Brantley 0-1 0-0 0, Favors 2-3 2-2 6, Morgan 0-0 0-0 0, Niang 2-9 2-2 7, Oni 2-2 0-0 5, Clarkson 7-23 0-0 18, Forrest 0-1 0-0 0, Harrison 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 42-98 17-20 114.

L.A. CLIPPERS (96)

Jackson 5-12 4-5 15, Morris Sr. 4-15 0-2 9, Ibaka 4-10 0-0 10, Beverley 3-3 1-2 8, Williams 6-18 3-4 16, Coffey 5-6 1-2 13, Mann 3-6 2-2 8, Patterson 3-7 0-0 7, Kabengele 1-3 0-0 2, Zubac 4-6 0-0 8. Totals 38-86 11-17 96.

Utah 24 22 35 33 — 114

L.A. Clippers 25 26 24 21 — 96

3-Point Goals_Utah 13-40 (Clarkson 4-12, Ingles 3-4, O’Neale 2-5, Mitchell 2-6, Niang 1-7, Bogdanovic 0-3), L.A. Clippers 9-26 (Coffey 2-3, Ibaka 2-4, Morris Sr. 1-3, Williams 1-3, Patterson 1-4, Jackson 1-5, Mann 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Utah 52 (Gobert 20), L.A. Clippers 48 (Zubac 10). Assists_Utah 19 (Mitchell 7), L.A. Clippers 18 (Williams 6). Total Fouls_Utah 15, L.A. Clippers 19. A_0 (18,997)

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