Jazz Blow Out Thunder Again at Home for Commanding 3 – 1 Lead

April 24th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

While all eyes were on the contentious match up between the Utah Jazz’s Ricky Rubio and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell (45) scored 33 points, powering the Jazz to their second consecutive rout of the Thunder and a commanding 3 to 1 series lead. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Story of the Game

Entering Game 4 of the First Round series between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, all the focus was on the point guard match up. After being on the receiving end of a huge triple double thanks to Utah’s Ricky Rubio in Game 3, defending league MVP Russell Westbrook used the post-game press conference to promise he would “shut that s*** down” in Game 4. The comment was indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding that has hurt the Thunder this series: belief that individual match ups would determine who moves on to Round 2.

After Utah’s 113 – 96 Game 4 victory, their second blowout of the Thunder in Salt Lake City, it has become obvious that the team focusing on individual performances is soundly outmatched by a superior team.

The Thunder started the game with physicality and loads of effort, as would be expected of a team seeking to avoid a three to one hole in a seven game series. Like in Game 3, it left them with a first quarter advantage, this time 30 to 24. And once again that lead meant nothing.

From the second quarter on, the Jazz dominated ever facet of the game. Utah scored 89 points in that span on 46-percent shooting from the field and 35-percent from long range. The Thunder managed only 66 points on 35-percent shooting and an abysmal 14-percent from three point range. Paul George’s uncanny eight of 11 accuracy from long range in Game 1 has proven fool’s gold, seducing a team that depends on getting to the hoop and crashing the offensive glass into trying to snipe it’s way to a playoff series victory. Against the stellar defense of the Jazz, that’s a losing strategy.

Closing out the second quarter and starting the third, Utah hammered Oklahoma City with a 38 to 15 blitz, and as the score got out of hand the veteran Thunder, despite having far more playoff experience than the Jazz, lost their heads. The game was contentious and ultra-physical from the opening tip, requiring less than four minutes before the first technical foul. By night’s end, there would be a total of seven: for Utah, head coach Quin Snyder as well as Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert, and eventually Jae Crowder, who was ejected for a flagrant two after inadvertently elbowing Steven Adams in the face late in the game; for Oklahoma City, George, Adams, and Raymond Felton.

Amidst all the bad blood, Westbrook and George were methodically overwhelmed by a much deeper Utah team, and the frustration of that clearly showed. Trying to back up his vow to lock down Rubio, an over-aggressive Westbrook earned four fouls in the first half, the last with less than two minutes left when Thunder head coach Billy Donovan foolishly left him in the game. 

With Westbrook and Adams, who has been in foul trouble throughout the series, forced to be passive, George was responsible for propping up his team’s diminished chances to tie the series. Yet despite scoring 32, George was unable to keep his team afloat, or even to check Joe Ingles as he did through the series’s first two games. Indeed, it was three three pointers from Ingles, who ended the night with 20 points, to close out the second quarter that put the Jazz steamroller into full motion.

By night’s end, Westbrook and George were irate and distracted by Rubio and Ingles, then dizzied by Donovan Mitchell throwing 33 points on their head, one of six Jazz players to score in double figures. After three straight wins to take a commanding three to one lead in the series, the Jazz look deeper, more confident, more controlled, and just plain better than the Thunder, who are now a single game from elimination.  

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Donovan Mitchell (33 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, 3 threes)

While the world was watching the Rubio/Westbrook match up, Mitchell reminded all viewers that any team that wants to beat the Jazz had better give him the top three slots in their scouting report. Mitchell gashed the Thunder over and over, finishing gliding shots at the rim with his great wingspan and superb athleticism and body control. He also added three makes from long range on eight attempts, pacing a Jazz offense that has now scored 113 and 115 points in back to back games. With just about every other position on the floor engaged in chippy back and forths throughout the game, somehow the focus never really fell on Mitchell despite his game-high 33 points and plus-22 on the night. Maybe the Thunder should think about shutting the rookie’s s*** down. He’s only averaging 28 points per game in the series. 

Secondary Stars: Ricky Rubio (13 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block) and Joe Ingles (20 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block, 5 threes)

While Rubio’s stat line was strong, his greatest contribution was not rising to Westbrook’s seething need for a personal dual with the Spaniard. Instead, Rubio met Westbrook’s fury with patience, taking only a single shot in the first quarter. While Westbrook’s boiler, which already burns hotter than any other player in the league, melted down, earning him four fouls in the first half, Rubio simply played his game, taking only twelve shots while leading the Jazz with his eight assists. 

Meanwhile, Ingles was ear-wigging George, worming his way into the All-NBA talent’s head and nesting there. After two games clearly frustrated and over-matched, Ingles has now solved George’s smothering defense, with back-to-back 20-point games as a result. Now it’s George who is frustrated, as illustrated by a technical foul he got for shoving Ingles from out of bounds less than four minutes into the game. The Austrialian has hit 10 threes in the last two games, and George has heard an earful after every single one.

Tonight these Jazz veterans played a magic trick worthy of Penn and Teller. They poked and prodded and needled and smirked Westbrook and George into complete obsession with them, a devastating distraction as their Jazz teammate’s thoroughly dismantled the Thunder supporting cast. It takes a whale of a distraction to get players to miss a rookie going off for 33 points, but that’s exactly what Rubio and Ingles did. 

Secret Star: Jae Crowder (6 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, +9)

While Royce O’Neale deserves credit for a fine 10 points, nine rebound game where he also hit two threes, it was Crowder who added to the Thunder’s prolonged mental breakdown over the course of this game. Despite making only two of 10 field goal attempts, Crowder helped Utah outscore Oklahoma City by nine in his 28 minutes of play, largely because of his physicality and defensive intensity. While that intensity got him tossed in the fourth quarter after an inadvertent elbow to Adam’s nose1, it played a significant part in the Thunder coming apart at the seems well before that.   

Stats of the Game

95 – Points by Utah’s starters. 

17 – Second chance points by the Jazz, five more than the Thunder. Utah is routinely winning this category that Oklahoma City feasted on during the regular season.

10 – Thunder assists, a season low and fewer than Westbrook averaged by himself in the regular season.

30.3 – Utah’s net rating in points per 100 possessions in the final three quarters. As through the middle of Game 3, the Jazz were dominant both offensively and defensively.

21/23 – Free throws made/attempted by George and Westbrook in the game. It isn’t like they got no help from the refs. 

Sundries

  • Before tonight, Utah was dominating the series in terms of skill, preparation, discipline, and cohesion. Tonight they added mental domination as well. The Thunder started this game with swagger and aggression. Utah turned the swagger to stupor and the aggression to stupidity. The series appears over.
  • Any who held out hope that Carmelo Anthony might be a Thunder asset this series had that belief turn to cold ash tonight. Anthony scored 11 points on 18 shots and missed all six of his three pointers. He’s averaging 14 points on 37-percent shooting and 23-percent from three. He’s living on his reputation and even that is in tatters.
  • While Adam’s numbers weren’t great (nine points, seven rebounds, one assist, two blocks), they still exaggerate his impact this game. Adams is one of those players who heavily influences a game by playing right on, and sometimes over, the edge of legality by holding and shoving  on nearly every play, making the most of his strength. After back-to-back losses where he was in foul trouble, he stayed clear of play that would draw whistles, and as he did so his value to the Thunder crashed through the floor. He was a game worst minus-19 in his 35 minutes.
  • The Jazz are playing complete, beautiful basketball, especially the starters. Consider that every one had at least 13 points and a block2 while all but Mitchell also managed a steal. Westbrook and George simply can’t match that complete play from five players melded into a seamless unit. The Thunder stars actually managed 55 points on 39 shots tonight, fantastic efficiency due to their parade to the free throw line. They still got buried by Utah’s starters. Five are better than two, even when those two are great.
  • Ingles has solved George’s defense and with that the Thunder have no solution to Utah’s offense, which has scored 30 or more points in four of the last seven quarters. Meanwhile, the Jazz defense has held Oklahoma City’s offense to 23 or fewer points in five of the last seven quarters. It’s systematic destruction.

The Thunder head back home for Wednesday’s Game 5, but as things stand now that appears to matter little. Veterans or not, doubt has to be smothering them given the buzzsaw they’ve run into the past three games. After all, Utah won 15 of its last 17 road game to close out the regular season. Their confidence won’t even dip trying to close out the series on the road. Even if the Thunder were to stave off elimination at home, that would only earn them a return trip to Salt Lake City, where the Jazz twice crushed them already in the series. 

Going into the playoffs, most assumed this series would be long and competitive. On Wednesday, odds are that the Utah Jazz, the clearly superior team, will end the series early by running off four straight victories.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

4 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Nice analysis as always. Would like to see the bench score more but they have not killed the momentum. Derrick is so sound in his play. Mitchell and Rubio surely complement each other.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Four starters with Crowder in for Favors laid waste to the league in the regular season. Now that Ingles’s game is going, that’s the one major piece the team has been missing: that high gear from the bench with Crowder. If they get that in a game, it’s highly unlikely the Thunder can win. Utah’s just too deep.

  2. Spencer says:

    One thing that is under reported is the way Utah is using their size mismatch Favors provides to get high percentage rim looks. This is something I had hoped for more during he regular season, but has been a common theme in this series. Diced to the hoop by favors has had the result of incredible efficiency and domination of the boards especially offensively.

    Looking ahead, this is a real advantage in the Houston series. No way PJ tucker or Trevor ariza can defend Favors at the rim.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Great point! Trying to get the ball to Favors and Gobert when they’ve sealed a defender, particularly on a switch, deep under the hoop was something the team clearly worked on in the last quarter of the season or so. They never got all that good at it, honestly, though they have been doing better in this playoff series. If they take advantage of this, as you mention, it gives them a critical way to punish spread offenses – which is what they’d face throughout the rest of the playoffs in the West should they advance beyond the first round.

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