With No. 4 seed secured, Clippers play it safe in loss to Jazz

LOS ANGELES — The Clippers found out shortly before tipoff on Friday night that they had secured the No. 4 seed for the Western Conference playoffs, reducing the importance of their game against the Utah Jazz.

Win or lose, they were going to have home-court advantage for their best-of-seven first-round series against the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, which will begin April 20 or 21.

So, after a dominating start, Coach Tyronn Lue sat his starters which allowed the injury-depleted Jazz to be competitive against a top-tier team and walk away with a 110-109 victory at Crypto.com Arena.

Lue said emerging from the game injury-free was more important than adding another victory against a team they routed by 29 points a week ago. The Clippers (51-30) already were without All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, who missed his seventh consecutive game because of an inflamed right knee, and he didn’t want to risk losing another player before the postseason.

“Definitely health,” Lue said when asked what their No. 1 priority is with two games to play, followed by “doing things the right way, playing the right way, continuing to build good habits. But the most important thing is health.”

Therefore, Lue was cautious in his approach to the game, resting All-Star Paul George, center Ivica Zubac, guard Terance Mann and former league MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook after the first quarter. None of them played more than 10 minutes. George and Zubac each had 10 points before leaving the game.

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That allowed the reserves to again see significant time on the floor. Bones Hyland had 20 points, five rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes, two days after posting a career-high 37 points in a loss to the Phoenix Suns. Amir Coffey finished with 16 points and six rebounds and Daniel Theis added 14 points.

With their playoff seeding locked, the Clippers have little-to-no incentive to bring Leonard back for Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Houston Rockets.

After returning to Los Angeles early from their last extended trip, Leonard reportedly had a precautionary MRI that showed no major damage in his right knee. However, the team has been tight-lipped about the specifics of his inflammation and his exact return date.

If Leonard does sit again Sunday, it will be the eighth consecutive contest he has missed, leaving no time to ramp up his game. He missed just six games this season heading into April.

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It was the second consecutive victory for the Jazz after losing 13 straight, a win that Coach Will Hardy will hang onto for a while. Utah (31-50) has struggled this season and Hardy said this game would provide another lesson for his injury-depleted team.

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Utah had six players on the injury list – Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, John Collins, Walker Kessler and Kris Dunn.

“This is a team that is at a place we want to get to,” Hardy said before the game. “We’re about to feel what it’s like to be one, play a team that is at that level and two, play a team that’s playing with a desperation (to lock down their seeding). That’s the sweet spot we want to be in.”

The Jazz were led by Kenneth Lofton Jr., who had a game-high 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

More to come on this story.

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