LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers brought back Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for a lineup on Friday, and the timing couldn’t be better.
The Utah Jazz, who have won 20 of their last 21 games, including an 18-point victory over the Clippers on Wednesday, returned to the Staples Center for the second game in a row. And the Clippers were eager to show where they stood against the best team in the West.
Leonard scored 29 points and grabbed two key offensive rebounds in the final minute to help the Clippers beat the Jazz 116-112 and end Utah’s nine-game winning streak.
“They are the best team in the NBA right now,” said Clippers coach Ty Liu, “We knew they won 20 out of 21 games today. We have our guys back and we wanted to win this game.”
The Clippers (22-9) have two stars back on the court after George missed the last seven games due to a swollen right toe and Leonard missed the last three games due to a bruise on the left foot. The Clippers’ team is back to full strength, as forward Nicholas Batum is also back in action after missing the last two games due to a concussion.
“I’m just glad I was able to play today,” said Leonard, who wore a sleeve on his lower left leg. “We were able to be healthy and get our first five, that’s the most important thing. We want to be healthy. We haven’t had a chance to play with a complete and healthy team the last two weeks. So we hope to get some blessings and stay healthy so we’re ready by the end of the game.
Jazz (24-6) also brought back goalie Mike Conley (right Achilles) for this showdown between two of the best teams in the West. Conley scored 16 points, but it was Donovan Mitchell who nearly kept the Jazz series alive. Mitchell scored 35 points, including 29 in the second half. The goaltender scored 12 points in the 1:23 final by helping Utah close a 13-point deficit with two seconds left in the game.
The Rudy Gobert Jazz Centre said the game “was like a playoff game – the intensity, the hard hitting they were doing all night.”
It was a tough and rare game for Utah. In their 20-1 win, the Jazz recorded just seven minutes of clutch time with the score being within five points in the final five minutes. It was the fewest in the NBA in this period.
“There are so many different things we’ve seen in this section,” Mitchell said. “We’re not here to be satisfied with what happens today and tomorrow. We’re preparing for the long haul – the second half of the season and the playoffs. We have to stay this team, not just in the first half of the season.
Like the Jazz, who lost their series 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Clippers want to be better than they were at the end of last season. They lost that series 3-1 in the second round, against the Nuggets.
The Clippers will need a healthy Leonard and George to advance this season. George said he played with a sore toe and was able to cope by taking the weekend off until he played back-to-back against Brooklyn and Cleveland. George then developed swelling and had to be stopped until the swelling and pain disappeared.
“We played against Brooklyn and then against Cleveland, two tough games that really made me dig in and push myself,” said George, who scored 15 points, handed in six rebounds and made five assists in 27 minutes. “Just being off the board and not being able to recover, I needed some rest because I was so excited. I was trying to keep her on the team and she snuck up on me.”
“I feel good,” George said of the feeling of his toe leaving the game. “I just got back into the game.”
The same goes for the Clippers, who were happy to see their stars healthy again in the face of the blazing Jazz.
“At the end of the day, we are basketball fans and of course you see the noise that is made during the season,” Patrick Beverley, the Clippers’ goalie, said of the Jazz’s 20-1 lead. “We really wanted what we gave, we ran out of gas at the end of Wednesday’s game. Utah needs to be honored. They have a good system, good players and coaches.
“It was a tough game, and that’s the kind of game you want in the NBA, and we’re definitely happy to win.”