By Jahmal Corner
(Reuters) – Utah center Rudy Gobert has hobbled his way in and out of the Utah Jazz first-round playoff series and his shaky health could leave the team vulnerable in the Game Seven decider against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.
Gobert is a master of obstruction when he stands in the lane with arms outstretched, blocking shots and sight lines. Standing, though, has been the problem as of late for the 7-foot-1-inch (215 cms) Frenchman known as ‘The Stifle Tower’.
Gobert twisted his left ankle after gathering a rebound in the third quarter of Utah’s Game Six loss to the Clippers on Friday, the second time in the series he has been floored by injury.
“I don’t know exactly (how it) happened, but he sprained his ankle,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told reporters after Los Angeles prevailed 98-93 to force Game Seven on Sunday.
“He was limping (in the fourth quarter) so we took him out.”
Gobert, 24, is expected to be ready for the series finale but to what degree?
He is already on the mend from a hyperextended left knee sustained in the playoff opener. That blow came just 17 seconds into the contest when he collided with Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute.
The big man’s importance was crystallized when the Jazz lost Games Two and Three with Gobert sidelined before he returned and sparked them to wins in the next two contests.
Without Gobert, the Jazz lack bite in the middle and give free rein to the Clippers’ own paint dweller, DeAndre Jordan. Gobert and Jordan mirror one another in many ways and the absence of either has a big impact.
“(DeAndre) is a lot like Rudy in how unselfish he is,” Snyder said. “Guys like that have an opportunity to impact the game in a lot of ways.”
In the three playoff games in which Gobert play more than 17 seconds, he is averaging 13.6 points, 11 rebounds, 2.3 steals and two blocks, in line with his breakout regular season that saw him lead the NBA in blocks and bloom into a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
A rallying point for the Jazz this season came after a bad loss to these same Clippers in Los Angeles on March 25 when Gobert called out teammates in a postgame interview for worrying about stats and not competing hard enough.
The locker room backed Gobert’s harsh truth and Utah won seven of their final nine games. Now the group is back in Los Angeles needing to capture one more to avoid early vacation.
To do that, the Jazz will need their big man to stay upright: “It’s Game Seven,” Gobert said. “We have to leave it all out there.”
(Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrew Both)