Without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, Clippers are outmanned by streaking Jazz

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Los Angeles, CA, Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) I surrounded by Clippers defenders in the second half at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is surrounded by Clippers defenders in the second half at Staples Center on Wednesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

At first glance, the mismatch could not have been more clear.

Taking a pass near the left block early in Wednesday’s first quarter, Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic backed into Lou Williams, a Clippers guard who was three years older, seven inches shorter and has never carried the reputation of a stingy defender.

But the easy basket never came. Williams waited for Bogdanovic’s third dribble, then poked away a steal and went for a layup. The moment encapsulated a night inside Staples Center when Utah’s obvious mismatch over a Clippers team missing three starters plus one reserve took longer to materialize than ever suspected at first glance.

Yet NBA games are won over 48 minutes, not 10-second stretches, and without the injured Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum or Luke Kennard, the walking wounded Clippers — who led by one after the first quarter, five at halftime and trailed by just six after three quarters — were eventually ground down by a 27-10 Utah run late in a 114-96 Jazz victory.

Lou Williams scored a game-high 16 points for the Clippers while Donovan Mitchell scored 24 to lead Utah.

Five takeaways from Utah’s 20th victory in its last 21 games, a game that ended the Clippers’ four-game winning streak:

1. Disrupting the Jazz

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue didn’t see this game as a litmus test for how his team stacked up against the Western Conference’s top team. The absences of three starters made that point moot. He did see it, however, as another opportunity to gauge his team’s mettle, two nights after beating Miami without four starters. Could they summon a similar grit? “We know they're the best team record-wise, but you know that's not gonna stop us from playing,” Lue said before tipoff.

The Clippers disrupted the comfort of Utah — which played without Mike Conley — for a first half by largely taking away their three-point opportunities. The Jazz, who attempt a league-leading 42 three-pointers this season, took 17 in the first half, making only five.

“I guess it’s a game, kind of like last game, to work on our team, work on everybody’s confidence, see where we’re at, at the end of the day, at the end of the game and be happy with our effort,” guard Terance Mann said.

2. Disruptor in chief

One of the chief reasons behind the Clippers’ feisty first half was the intensity of Patrick Beverley. His block of Mitchell in the first quarter was just one of several instances where Beverley kept the young star off-balance with his effort defensively. Beverley’s numbers — eight points, four rebounds, two assists— didn’t do his impact justice.

3. Good news/bad news

For the Clippers, there are two ways to look at this game. Encouragement that they’d hung close to the NBA’s hottest team without playing flawless basketball? Or disappointment that what turned into Utah’s 18th double-digit victory in its last 21 games were costly, avoidable mistakes that kept the Clippers from claiming what would have been their best victory of the season?

“You got to take care of the ball and take shots,” Lue said of his team’s 18 turnovers. “I just thought Lou was a little out of gas tonight. He’s the guy who’s been making it go for us. But can’t fault our effort or our competing.”

4. Big difference

The Clippers (21-9) had no answer for the size of Jazz center Rudy Gobert, the early favorite for the league’s defensive player of the year. The center was the only Jazz starter in the first half with a positive plus/minus. He’d finish plus-25 and is now the NBA’s season leader in plus/minus. Gobert scored 23 points to go with 20 rebounds but it was the way he froze the Clippers driving into the paint that altered not only shots but the Clippers’ ability to create a bigger lead than six. When he sat, the Clippers attacked the rim; but eventually, his defense, along with the pressure Utah’s drives put on defenders trying to keep Gobert away from put-backs and lobs, cracked the Clippers’ chances of an upset.

“He’s just a big body and sometimes it’s tough to limit what he can do,” Amir Coffey said.

5. Next men up

Lue called Kennard’s late scratch because of a sore right knee “a little bit of a surprise.” Forward Nicolas Batum, meanwhile, is in concussion protocol and his return to action is unclear, Lue said; NBA concussion protocols does not define a timetable for how long a player can take before returning. Yet Batum felt healthy enough to watch from the sideline inside an arena with a noisy musical soundtrack, which could be taken as an encouraging sign. Also watching from the sideline was Leonard, who spent the break between the third and fourth quarters conferring with Clippers coaches inside their huddle. The veterans spent timeouts talking with their teammates.

“I think that’s just guys being more comfortable with each other,” Mann said. “Being able to talk to each other, talk things out when guys make mistakes, that just happens with time.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.