One month into the season, the Western Conference is up for grabs. Seven teams entered Sunday tied for the fewest losses (six), and the top 10 teams were within three games of each other.
Nobody could’ve guessed who’d be in sole possession of first place out West, though. After impressive back-to-back wins over Phoenix and Portland, the Utah Jazz claimed the top spot with a 12-6 record heading into Monday’s showdown in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
After Utah traded All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert along with steady starters Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale, some might not have expected the Jazz to amass a dozen victories all season.
“We’re proud of the way we’ve represented ourselves after 18 games,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said after his team held on for a 118-113 win in Portland on Saturday. “We believe we can get better. That’s our focus. Like every team, we’re not a finished product yet. That doesn’t mean we’re (not) proud of where we are at this point, but we can’t get lost in what anybody is saying about us.”
There were only positive things to say about the performance of Malik Beasley, who had a game-high 29 points. Jordan Clarkson was also impressive, scoring eight straight points in the final two minutes before finishing with 28, and All-Star candidate Lauri Markkanen followed his career-high 38 points versus the Suns with 23 points and 10 rebounds against Portland.
The Jazz have already picked up one win in Los Angeles over the Clippers this season. On Nov. 6, Utah earned a 110-102 victory paced by 23 points and five assists from Clarkson and 22 points from Collin Sexton to help overcome 20 turnovers.
That performance prompted Hardy to say, “Finding ways to win is fun.”
The Clippers, on the other hand, have been trying to find ways to win without their full complement of players.
“We got to stick together,” Nicolas Batum said. “We’ll be OK.”
Sure enough, the Clippers have won five of seven since that disappointing home loss to Utah and, though Paul George left Saturday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs early, Los Angeles has Kawhi Leonard back in the rotation.
Leonard has averaged 8.5 points, four assists and 23.5 minutes in two games, both wins, after being sidelined for 12 games with stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee.
George had 21 points in the Clippers’ 119-97 win over San Antonio, while Norman Powell added 26 off the bench and Reggie Jackson scored 20. The Clippers made 21 3-pointers, with George and Powell each draining five. John Wall dished out 15 assists.
“(Saturday) was the best game we’ve played all season. This is the blueprint of how we need to play,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “It was a fun game to play and a fun game to watch.”
George didn’t play in the second half after tweaking his calf. Lue said he’s “doing OK,” but hasn’t announced whether he’ll play Monday or not.
The Clippers are learning to play well with whomever they have on the court, though.
“This is probably the deepest team any of us have played on,” Wall said. “We shouldn’t worry about who’s the leading scorer, just play the right way.”
The Jazz will be without starting point guard Mike Conley, who left Saturday’s game with a left knee injury. Conley did not suffer major ligament damage, tests revealed, and is expected to miss at least two weeks, according to The Athletic.
–Field Level Media