SALT LAKE CITY -- Little room for error remains for the Utah Jazz in their efforts to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Utah clinched a playoff spot on Sunday night. Now the Jazz can't afford a misstep when they host the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night. They are clinging to a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in the battle for the Western Conference fourth seed.
The Clippers own a valuable tiebreaker over Utah. They won the season series 3-1 after defeating the Jazz 108-95 on Saturday. It marked the 18th win for Los Angeles in the last 20 games in the series.
Utah (44-29) never fully recovered from a sluggish start on offense in the first quarter. The Jazz rallied from a 15-point deficit in the third quarter and tied it at 70-70 on a basket from Joe Johnson. Then the Clippers opened the fourth quarter on a 12-3 run -- capped by a driving layup from Jamal Crawford -- to go back ahead for good.
"Right from the beginning, they jumped us and we weren't ready," said Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who totaled 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting and 14 rebounds. "That's how it is. That's what happened the last few games, also, and we came out the same way tonight."
Utah received a scare when Gordon Hayward exited midway through the fourth quarter after an apparent knee injury. Hayward sustained a left quadriceps contusion, but X-rays on the knee itself were negative. He is questionable for Monday against the Pelicans.
New Orleans, coincidentally, assisted the Jazz in clinching a playoff spot by beating the Denver Nuggets 115-90 on Sunday. It gave the Pelicans a glimmer of hope that they can sneak into the final playoff spot down the stretch.
For now, New Orleans (31-42) trails the Nuggets by four games for the eighth seed with nine games left. An upset win over Utah would go a long way toward closing that gap.
The Pelicans improved their position despite playing without DeMarcus Cousins after he injured an ankle in a 117-107 loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday. With his ankle still bothering Cousins at shootaround on Sunday morning, New Orleans opted to play it safe and sit him out against Denver.
Cousins, like Hayward, is also listed as questionable for Monday's game.
"It's a medical thing, and we're not going to jeopardize anything," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of Cousins. "If he's ready to play, if he feels that he's capable from a health standpoint, we'll play him."
New Orleans improved to 3-0 without Cousins in the lineup since trading for him behind 31 points and 15 rebounds from Anthony Davis. It marked the 45th double-double this season for Davis, who only played 28 minutes. He rested the entire fourth quarter after the Pelicans built up an 87-59 lead by the end of the third quarter.
Momentum favors New Orleans going into this latest battle with the Jazz. The Pelicans have won six of their past eight, while Utah has dropped three of its past four.
The Jazz won both previous meetings with New Orleans this season. Utah led wire-to-wire in its most recent victory, an 88-83 result over the Pelicans on March 6. Hayward paced the Jazz with 23 points in the latter game, and Gobert chipped in 16 rebounds and 15 points.