The Utah Jazz’s first playoff game in five years was one of perseverance.
Just 11 seconds into Game 1 of their first-round series with the LA Clippers, the Jazz lost their defensive anchor and team MVP, Rudy Gobert. Gobert was injured on one of his patented screens for All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Gobert's secondary action off his screen went awry after he banged knees with Clippers forward, Luc Mbah a Moute. Gobert immediately exited the game and never returned. He ended up receiving an MRI late Saturday night, revealing a hyperextension to go along with a bone bruise in his left knee. His availability for the remainder of the series is in serious question.
For most teams, an injury like this to a player of Gobert’s caliber would be a crushing blow. Teams typically respond poorly to traumatic injuries, especially injuries that transpire on the first play of a playoff game. You have to credit the Jazz and the organizational infrastructure that they've built upon this season. They've dealt with an array of injuries all season, starting with Gordon Hayward's finger injury back in October, why stop now?
The Jazz ended up hanging tough, grinding out possession by possession, ending with playoff heroics from one of the most prolific one-on-one scorers of his generation, 16-year veteran "Iso" Joe Johnson. Johnson's statline was impressive, 21 points on 9-14 shooting, including 3-4 from distance, in 31 minutes off the bench. But no shot was bigger than his 14th and final attempt.
With Johnson dialed in, the Jazz managed to stay the course, operating with a level of crispness and intelligence that allowed the Jazz to always be in the game despite Gobert's absence.
Despite the dramatic 97-95 Jazz victory, one question still looms.
How will the Jazz adjust without Rudy Gobert?
Losing one of the top Defensive Player of the Year candidates is never an easy proposition, especially in the playoffs. In the regular season, injuries, depending on the severity, are manageable—teams do whatever it takes to have their rosters at full strength come playoff time. Utah has been dealing with injury after injury all season, finally getting to a comfortable point of "full health" going into last evening's matchup. Remember, Rudy Gobert had been the most durable player on the Jazz roster this regular season, only missing one game all regular season, so we have little statistical evidence on how this year's roster will fare outside of the Game 1 result. On/off numbers can serve as a helpful stat, painting a picture of how teams perform with players on the court and when they sit. The Jazz ended up posting a net rating of plus-8.1 with Gobert on the floor compared to minus-2.9 with the Frenchman on the bench.
Game 1 always featured one of the three (Derrick Favors, Boris Diaw, Jeff Withey) centers on the floor at all times for the Jazz. Snyder's most used lineup combination consisted of George Hill at point guard, Derrick Favors at the center position and three wing players, Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles. That lineup totaled 12 minutes, posting a plus-4.0 net rating (115.1 offensive rating vs. 111.1 defensive rating) per NBA.com/stats.
You'd have to think that the Jazz are going put the majority of their eggs in the Derrick Favors basket to try to salvage this Gobert situation. Relying on Favors for heavy minutes is a dicey proposition, considering his own personal injury ailments he has faced this season. Fatigue was evident down the stretch of Game 1, and the lack of lateral movement Favors displayed is a little worrisome. Throwing rim-protection out the window against the frontline of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin is a major no-no. The Jazz are going to have to get quality minutes from Jeff Withey to have any chance of slowing down Jordan. Relying on Withey (gulp) has to be a nerve-racking endeavor for Jazz fans.
We'll see how things go—Quin Snyder is going to have to get creative with his lineups to keep the Clippers off balance. He already passed his first test as the Clippers struggled with the Jazz spaced out wing fronts of Hayward, Johnson & Ingles. Losing Gobert is a massive loss, but the way the Jazz have dealt with injuries all season, it's not a death sentence by any means.
"No playoff series truly begins until the road team wins a game." Well, this 4-5 matchup is officially underway—the Jazz took back home court advantage but how they deal with not having their MVP center remains to be seen.