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Jazz come out flat, lay an egg in important game against Clippers

LOS ANGELES — In what was the biggest game of the season to date, a game that may go a long way toward determining playoff positions and home-court advantage for next month’s playoffs, not to mention important momentum for the home stretch of the season, the Utah Jazz basically laid an egg Saturday afternoon at the Staples Center.

The Jazz came out flat, with their lowest-scoring opening quarter of the year, faced an uphill struggle all day and lost 108-95 to their old nemesis, the Los Angeles Clippers. It marked the 18th defeat in the last 20 games for the Jazz against the Clippers and ninth in the last 10 tries in Los Angeles.

Oh, the Jazz did show some life in the middle two quarters when they outscored the Clippers by 12 points, and they got another brilliant performance from Rudy Gobert, who led the way with 26 points and 14 rebounds, as well as a nice effort off the bench from Joe Johnson (17 points).

Otherwise, the Jazz got little from the rest of the team, which dropped to 44-29, a half-game ahead of the Clippers (44-30) and lost the tiebreaker to the Clips, who won the season series 3-1.

Coach Quin Snyder said his team wasn’t aggressive enough at the start when it settled for outside shots rather than taking the ball to the basket more.

“They started the game with more aggression and physicality, it kind of knocked us back,” Snyder said. “We didn’t attack early in the game, none of us did, and as a result we weren’t as aggressive on the rim.”

Gobert said the Jazz just weren’t as ready as the Clippers from the opening tip.

“One team came out ready and the other team didn’t come out as ready,” he said. “Right from the beginning they kind of jumped us and we weren’t ready, so that’s how it is. That’s happened the last few games or so, and we came out the same way tonight. We need to keep getting better, especially mentally.”

Gordon Hayward had his second straight tough game after his career-high of 38 earlier in the week against Indiana. Hayward didn’t score until late in the first quarter and finished with just 13 points. He only played a couple of minutes of the final quarter and was sent for X-rays of his left knee, although Snyder said he thought his star player was “fine.”

Although Snyder and some of his players tried to downplay the importance of the game before Saturday, they knew it meant two games in the Western Conference standings. A win would have given the Jazz a two-and-a-half game lead with nine to play, and the likely edge in the tiebreaker scenario.

So it was strange that the Jazz didn’t come out with more intensity as they quickly fell behind by double digits and trailed 28-14 after the first quarter. Thanks to Johnson, who hit a couple of big 3-pointers, the Jazz fought back in the second quarter to cut the lead to 49-41.

With a rare four-point play on a Gobert basket inside and free throw and a technical foul on Blake Griffin, the Jazz pulled within five at 68-63 and then tied the game at 70 when Johnson hit a floater in the lane with a half minute left in the quarter before veteran Paul Pierce made it 72-70.

The Clippers then scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter to push the lead to double digits again, and the lead got as high as 20 before the Jazz reserves closed the final margin.

Reserve guard Jamal Crawford led all scorers with 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 3 of 6 from 3-point range. Blake Griffin scored 15, Chris Paul had 14 and JJ Redick scored 12. Besides Crawford, the Clippers got 11 points and 10 rebounds from Marreese Speights off the bench. In all, the Clippers’ bench outscored the Jazz 56-32.

“I thought their bench was really, really good,” said Snyder.

“The reserves saved us,” added L.A. coach Doc Rivers

While the Jazz face an uphill climb to secure home-court advantage for the playoffs with several tough games coming up, they’re trying to stay positive.

“We lost to a really good team on their home floor in an important game, but we can’t be discouraged and be down,” said Snyder. “We just have to respond and figure out how to be better.”

“It’s frustrating,” added Gobert. “We didn’t come out as ready as we should have, but we have to learn from it, and going forward we’re going to be better.