On a night when the Clippers star was absent, Utah’s finally arrived.
And in a young season where the play of Jazz point guard Mike Conley has produced raised eyebrows, he instead walked off Wednesday to a standing ovation inside Vivint Smart Home Arena.
With Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard still in California, missing the first of what is expected to be several games this season for precautionary reasons, his team struggled to create their own shots and stop Utah’s in a 110-96 loss at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
For the Clippers (3-2), there will be many more nights like this, where they play shorthanded.
In their attempt to ensure the healthiest roster possible by the postseason’s start, the team’s “load management” will not stop with Leonard.
“All year, we’re going to rest a lot of guys,” coach Doc Rivers said.
They can only hope they won’t all end like this.
Trailing by just one at halftime, the Clippers fell apart during a third quarter in which they were outscored by 18 and unable to contain Conley. The guard’s offseason arrival via trade from Memphis put Utah (4-1) in the conversation among other Western Conference contenders. Then he made only nine of his first 45 field-goal attempts to start this season.
He made 11 field goals against the Clippers alone, and six in the third quarter.
“He made I think every shot he took in the third,” Clippers center Ivica Zubac said.
At one point in the third quarter, the Clippers trailed by 21 points. Then fought to within 10 in the fourth quarter, thanks to a bench unit led by JaMychal Green’s 23 points, but Conley answered with a 25-foot three-pointer. On the next possession, he lobbed an alley-oop to seven-footer Rudy Gobert and the night was over.
“Conley made shots, the third quarter killed us,” Rivers said. “Thought we did a good job getting back into the game and then once the third quarter happened the game was basically over.”
Three-time NBA sixth-man winner Lou Williams was moved to the starting lineup for his 21st start in 159 games with the Clippers and finished with 24 points.
Resting stars was a practice long before Toronto popularized “load management” last season by not playing Leonard during at least one leg of all 12 of the team’s back-to-backs. As coach in Boston, Rivers once left his three best players home for an entire road trip. Utah is so focused on finding the right balance of resting players that they call a section of their practice facility devoted to tracking performance “The Lab.”
“You want to maximize guys,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said “In the end there’s a scientific component, but it’s not an exact science.”
But Toronto’s success with the strategy — winning the NBA championship behind the fresher legs of Leonard, the Finals most valuable player — coupled with the NBA’s focus on ensuring fans see stars, has made the practice a subject of tension.
Teams can be fined at least $100,000 by the league for resting “healthy players for any high-profile, nationally televised game,” according to a memo sent to teams last season. Additionally, “absent unusual circumstances, teams should not rest healthy players when playing on the road.”
The Clippers listed “load management, knee,” and not rest, as the reason for Leonard sitting out the ESPN-televised game, though Rivers said at the morning’s shoot-around that the forward “has never felt better.” A league spokesman said the Clippers are in compliance with league policy and will not be fined because they received approval for Leonard’s absence ahead of time, after providing information to the league.
The Raptors were 17-5 without Leonard in the lineup last season. But that was in a weak Eastern Conference. The Clippers won’t have that cushion in a brutal West.
“It’s different when you have guys like that sit out and you’re playing at home, you get that energy,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “When you have away games you have to find a way to build that energy from within collectively.
“Of course any loss is a bad loss in the West and especially in the NBA, but without our main guys we did get better today.”