LOS ANGELES – The LA Clippers had Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back in the lineup on Friday, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Soaring Utah Jazz, winners of 20 of their previous 21 games, including an 18-point win over the Clippers on Wednesday, were back at Staples Center for a second game in a row. And the Clippers wanted to show where they stood against the top team in the West standings.
Leonard scored 29 points and came in with two big offensive rebounds in the last minute to help the Clippers hold off the Jazz, 116-112, and break Utah’s nine-game winning streak.
“They are currently the best team in the NBA,” said Clippers coach Ty Lue. “We knew they had won 20 out of 21 tonight. We got our boys back and we wanted to win this game.”
The Clippers (22-9) had their two stars back on the field after George missed the previous seven games due to a swollen right toe and Leonard sat out the previous three due to a left leg bruise. The Clippers’ starting line-up was solid again and striker Nicolas Batum also returned after missing the previous two games due to a concussion.
“I’m just glad I could go out to play today,” said Leonard, wearing a sleeve around his left lower leg. “We were able to be healthy and get our first five, and that’s what it’s all about. We want to get better. We haven’t had a chance to really play with a full, healthy squad for the past two weeks. So hopefully we can. we have some blessings and are able to stay healthy until the All-Star [break] started.”
The Jazz (24-6) also had guard Mike Conley (right hamstring) back in the line-up for this showdown between two of the West’s best teams. Conley scored 16 runs, but it was Donovan Mitchell who almost kept the Jazz streak alive. Mitchell scored 35 runs, 29 of them in the second half. The guard scored 12 points in the final 1:23 when he helped Utah narrow a late 13-point deficit to two with 13 seconds to go.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert said the game “felt like a playoff game – the intensity, the hard shots they took all night.”
For Utah this was a rare tight game. During their 20-1 trajectory, the Jazz had logged just seven minutes in pairing time, while the score is within five points in the last five minutes. That’s the least in the NBA during that period.
“There are so many different things we’ve seen along this journey,” Mitchell said. “We are not here to be satisfied with what is happening today, tomorrow. We are preparing for the long term – the second half of the season and the playoffs. We have to stay this team and not just this team in the first half of the season. “
Like the Jazz, who blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Clippers are also striving to improve on the previous postseason. They blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the second round.
The Clippers need a healthy Leonard and George this season to move on. George said he’d played with a sore toe and could get by with a day off between games until he played in a back-to-back game against Brooklyn and Cleveland. George then experienced swelling and had to be shut down until the swelling and pain disappeared.
“We played Brooklyn and then Cleveland, two tough games that made me dig and push, plant and play off those toes,” said George, who had 15 points, six rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes. Just that back to back knocked me a bit overboard and I couldn’t recover, I needed some time off because it was bloated.
“I’m fine,” George added how his toe felt out of play. “I just get back into the rhythm of things.”
The same could be said of the Clippers, who were happy that their stars were healthy again against the red-hot Jazz.
“At the end of the day we’re basketball fans, and of course you can see the noise that is made all season long,” said Clippers guard Patrick Beverley of the Jazz’s 20-1. “We actually wanted the one we gave up, by the end we were running out of gas [on Wednesday]You have to give Utah credit. They have a great system, hella players, the coaches.
“It was a tough game, and that’s the kind of game you want in the NBA, and we’re lucky to definitely win.”
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