LOS ANGELES — Fans hate injuries to star players in the playoffs, and there's a certain breed of player who hates them, too. The injuries just add up to more "what if" questions than any normal sports bar happy hour can handle:
What if Kevin Love had been available in the 2015 NBA Finals?
What if Kevin Garnett didn't injure his knee in 2009?
What if I didn't sprain my wrist in junior high school and also grew an entire foot before basketball tryouts?
So many questions, most of them unanswerable. The one thing we know: the Jazz need Rudy Gobert just as much as the Clippers need him off the court. Whether they get him back is the only question that matters in this 1-1 Western Conference playoffs series.
When asked by reporters if the absence of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had impacted his offensive production in the Clippers' 99-91 Game 2 win, DeAndre Jordan kept it brief. "We can't worry about one person, and I don't think my job changes if he's playing or if he's out."
That's the reasonable-athlete response to this sort of question. Who wants to give his opponent credit for anything? No one is going to say the logical thing, especially in front of eager journalists with tape recorders and a lot of time on their hands. An admission that a player's absence due to injury is a pivotal element in a playoff game is tantamount to sports treason.
Just once, I'd like to see a guy say, you know what, that dude scares the crap out of me and I'm glad he's injured. A bit of refreshing candor/unchecked bloodlust might be more entertaining for lowly spectators like us but not so great for the athlete trying to drive a metaphorical stake through the heart of their opposite number.
It should come as no surprise that Jordan no-sold the idea of Gobert's Game 1 injury mattering one way or another. In a way, it's like saying even if you get your guy back, we're still going to slap you around, though in a far more polite sort of sense. If you squint, DJ has a point. No matter who the starting center is, Jordan still has to put on his hard hat every morning, jump into the restricted area and start banging.
In the case of Game 2, his role was more necessary than ever, with the Clippers pinned down by a hungry, motivated Jazz team bolstered by some typical "Iso Joe" Johnson heroics.
After dropping that heartbreaker in Game 1, the Clippers were trapped in a situation which even Jordan noted was must-win. "We had to win tonight," he said during the postgame press conference. "We wanted to win the first game, but we didn't."
As Blake Griffin described it, the Clippers spent the two days between games being "really pissed off," and it showed in how they bullied the Jazz's undermanned frontcourt.
L.A. scored 60 points in the paint, compared to the Jazz's paltry 38. That's 20 more points than the Clippers scored down low in Game 1, and it proved to be decisive in this contest.
One need only look at the way Los Angeles danced past the Jazz like they were Drake in the "Hotline Bling" video (sans turtleneck) to know that something was off and someone was missing. They struggled to find matchups to contain Jordan early, who found himself in a clear mismatch midway through the first quarter, with George Hill guarding him close to the basket. After a bit of forceful begging, Chris Paul gave Jordan the entry pass he so badly desired.
From there, it was simple physics. The big, fast guy dunked on the smaller guy. You've seen it a thousand times, and you will see it a thousand times more if Gobert is shut down for this series. The Clippers would continue to pound the ball all night long.
They found cutters and threw up trademarked lobs with impunity. Jordan ended the game with 18 points and 15 rebounds, and it's hard to agree with him that it was business as usual against Derrick Favors and Jeff Withey instead of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with a 7'9" wingspan.
Jordan's highest point total against the Jazz with Gobert in the lineup in 2017 is 12, which came in a 114-108 loss at Vivint SmartHome Arena on March 13. That's not just DJ's highest point total against Gobert in 2017; that's his highest point total against Gobert ever.
In that same game, he recorded seven total rebounds. Their next meeting, at Staples Center on March 25, saw Gobert record 26 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in a losing effort. On the other side, Jordan scored seven, rebounded 15 and blocked one.
This is not to say Gobert is the panacea that will fix all of the Jazz's problems, but it will certainly go a long way toward fixing the biggest one. If Utah can't stop a team that lives and dies on pick-and-rolls and interior action, then it won't matter that the Jazz held the Clippers to a 30 percent night from beyond the three-point line and that sharpshooters J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford combined to go 0-of-7 from three.
"Whether it was the pick-and-roll or penetration or Blake Griffin, we've just got to find other ways to protect the paint," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder told reporters. It's hard to see where that solution comes from without Gobert to hassle Jordan and close off passing lanes with his impossibly long arms.
For Snyder, the answer might be untenable.
"We may have to shoot, have a hot shooting night," he said. The Jazz were 28th in points per game and 12th in adjusted offensive rating during the regular season. Their adjusted defensive rating put them third in the league. This is a team that doesn't win shootouts, unless the aforementioned hot shooting night happens, like it did in Game 1 for seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson.
Veteran teams such as the Clippers make adjustments. They find weaknesses and exploit them. Saying that the lack of Gobert doesn't change your job is semantics. Yes, it doesn't change the broad task: score points, rebound, stop the other team from scoring. But it does afford the smart team opportunities it wouldn't have had otherwise.
The Clippers are poised to take full advantage of a team desperately outmatched underneath the basket, and they better. It's the kind of unlucky injury break Clippers fans are used to dealing with. Injuries to CP3 and Griffin cost them in the 2016 postseason, but the ledger might balance out this year.
Dave Schilling is a writer at large for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.