Jazz host Clippers in key West contest
SALT LAKE CITY — It isn’t a cliche to say that the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers have reached a juncture where every game counts. Plenty is at stake when the two teams clash in Salt Lake City on Thursday night.
Utah (45-33) has won three straight and is a half-game up on San Antonio for fourth place in the Western Conference after the Spurs dropped an overtime decision to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Jazz need to keep winning to clinch that top four seed and earn homecourt advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The Clippers (42-36) trail New Orleans by two games for the final playoff spot. They need more wins and a little help elsewhere to keep their season going beyond next week.
For Utah, the path to a top-four seed requires overcoming some recent struggles at home. The Jazz won their second straight home game Tuesday after edging the Los Angeles Lakers 117-110.
It wasn’t a simple task. The Lakers shot 48.6 percent from the field overall and made 14 3-pointers. Utah needed 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting from Ricky Rubio — his fifth career 30-point game — to outlast them.
The Jazz struggled with everything from closing out on shooters to stopping transition baskets. It left coach Quin Snyder unhappy with the effort he witnessed.
“Our focus needs to be: be better,” Snyder said. “All I’ve heard is the playoffs and we’re in the playoffs. We’re not in the playoffs. There’s no x next to our name in the standings, so we need to play with more urgency and more focus.”
Perimeter defense has been a major issue in recent games for the Jazz. Seven of Utah’s last 10 opponents have shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Four have shot better than 50 percent from long distance.
The Lakers shot 13-of-21 from 3-point range through three quarters before finally going 1-of-7 over the final 12 minutes. It let Los Angeles hang around and made the Jazz sweat out a win.
“I don’t think for us it should be hard,” Utah guard Donovan Mitchell said. “We kind of did this to ourselves a little bit. I think the biggest thing with us is being able to come out strong.”
The Clippers picked up a critical 113-110 victory over San Antonio on Tuesday night to keep their playoff hopes alive. Los Angeles rallied in the fourth quarter against the Spurs, scoring 41 points to overcome a double-digit deficit. Lou Williams supplied 15 of his 22 points in the final quarter and Tobias Harris led the way with 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
It snapped a two-game losing streak for Los Angeles. One reason for it is the Clippers showed marked improvement in getting to the free throw line and making free throws. They went 34-of-43 from the line against the Spurs after making 31-of-49 free throws combined in losses to Portland and Indiana.
The Clippers also closed strong in the fourth quarter against San Antonio after falling victim to a final quarter rally against the Pacers.
Los Angeles could be a little short-handed Thursday. Danilo Gallinari sat out Tuesday with a sore right hand and it’s doubtful he will be available agaunst the Jazz. Gallinari has appeared in only 21 games this season because of injuries.
“It’s day by day,” Gallinari told the Los Angeles Times. “I will go with the team to Utah, and hopefully the pain is a little better and I play next game.”
Utah has won two of the first three meetings this season. The Jazz beat the Clippers 125-113 on Jan. 20 in the most recent encounter. Utah never trailed and was powered by 23 points from Mitchell and 21 points from Joe Ingles.
Los Angeles fell short despite 31 points, seven assists and a franchise-record 10 steals from Williams. He became the first player in NBA history to have 30 points, 10 steals and seven assists in a game.