It wasn’t surprising that Rudy Gobert, Utah’s 7-foot-1 center, called Batum after his surprising release by Charlotte (Batum learned of it via social media). The friends and teammates on France’s national team are “really close,” Batum told The Times in February, and they share an agent.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, Nico, come on. Come with me, let’s do it together,’” Batum recounted.
Within 24 hours, as contenders kept contacting Batum, the 6-8 forward made his own call — deciding to join the Clippers in hopes of providing a dose of redemption for both a player seeking a career rebound and a franchise in need of stable, veteran voices. He said Gobert was happy for him. Seven months later, that decision has helped the Clippers reach a second-round series against Gobert and the top-seeded Jazz that begins Tuesday in Salt Lake City.
No need for FaceTime. Batum and Gobert will be seeing plenty of one another during the next two weeks.
“It’s always fun to match up against guys from your country, same country in the playoffs,” Batum said after contributing 11 points and five assists in the Clippers’ 126-111 victory Sunday over Dallas in Game 7 of their first-round series. “I’ve faced Tony [Parker] before, but I’ve never faced Rudy. So it’s going to be a very good matchup.
“He had a great season. I guess maybe he’s going to be the defensive player of the year. I hope he wins, he deserves it, but now we have to beat him. We have to beat him now. Utah had a great, great season. Great players, great coaching staff, but we want the same thing. We have the same goal.”
With a series win, the Clippers would advance to the first conference finals in the franchise’s 51-year history; the Jazz are seeking their first conference finals appearance since 2007.
Asked about the matchup only minutes after Sunday’s win, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue wasn’t yet ready.
“Can we enjoy this one first?” he asked.
The reaction was as much about his desire to savor the moment — he joined Red Auerbach as the only coaches in NBA history to win his first four Game 7s — as it was about staving off the work of breaking down how to attack a deep, talented Jazz team whose 52-20 record and plus-9.0 net rating, the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, were the NBA’s best. (Second place in net rating? The Clippers.)
In whatever plan Lue chooses, Batum figures to play a prominent part for a second consecutive round, even if Utah’s size might lead Batum to return to a reserve role.
To outlast Dallas in seven games, one of Lue’s most influential tactical changes was calling on Batum to start as part of a smaller lineup beginning with Game 4. When Batum sat while Luka Doncic played, the Clippers were picked apart, outscored by 44 points in 87 minutes. Yet during the 194 minutes that the young Slovenian superstar and veteran Frenchman overlapped, the advantage flipped, with the Clippers outscoring Dallas by 37. In the last four games, Batum deflected a team-high 17 passes.
The Clippers were profoundly better with Batum on the court, outscoring Dallas by 17 points per 100 possessions when he played while being outscored by 11.5 points when he sat. Eight Clippers played at least 90 minutes in the series, and none produced a higher combined net rating than Batum’s, only 15 months after his career-worst season led Charlotte to move him from its rotation to make way for a youth movement.
During his final nine minutes of Sunday’s fourth quarter, Batum grabbed three of his seven rebounds and blocked a layup by 7-4 Boban Marjanovic. When Lue described the win as a “total team effort,” he meant not only his star duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — both of whom called Batum in November as part of the Clippers’ recruitment — but the invaluable contributions of Batum, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard and Marcus Morris, who combined for 58 points two days after combining for just 12 in Game 6.
“Marcus made shots. Batum, what we asked him to do defensively,” said guard Reggie Jackson, who had 40 combined points in Games 6 and 7. “But T-Mann and Luke, for their minutes to fluctuate the way they have through the season, not necessarily always in the series — coming in and playing big minutes and not being afraid of the moment in Game 7, hats off to them.”
The Clippers surely would rather enter the second round as rested as Utah, which has not played since Wednesday after needing only five games to eliminate Memphis. Still, the Clippers’ fatigue comes with confidence.
“This series opened our eyes to certain things we need to get better at,” Mann said. “I think it will definitely help us. We definitely got better as a team this series.”
Lue viewed it as a test his team needed to prepare for the top-seeded Jazz, whose net rating of plus-8.4 ranked fourth best among the 16 playoff teams.
“Just battle tested going to seven games in the first round, coming out here, winning the game on our home floor, which we didn’t play well [on] the first three games, it just shows a lot about our team, about the resilience, about what we have done all season long,” Lue said.
The unenviable task of containing Doncic could be, in hindsight, an invaluable stress test for a defense that will need to remain focused to slow down Utah. In the playoffs, the Jazz have generated the fifth-most points per play in the half-court offense and are the best team at converting put-backs into points by a significant margin.
“Just the mindset of having to sit down and guard, help, rotate came into play again this series,” George said. “And it’s definitely what we are going to have to do going into the next one.”
Should the Clippers need another long-armed veteran defender on the court, or just an insider’s scouting report on what makes Gobert tick, there is little doubt whom they will call.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.