Jazz Dominate Thunder 115 – 102 for 2 – 1 Series Lead

April 22nd, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

The Utah Jazz’s Ricky Rubio (3) celebrates his 26-point triple double in the Jazz’s Game 3 drubbing of the Oklahoma City Thunder. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Story of the Game

The Utah Jazz are wont to answer any question about their strengths as individual players by bragging up the strength of their collective – of the team. In the third game of their First Round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and their Big Three, that collective overwhelmed the Thunder trio for an easy 115 – 102 victory and a two games to one lead in the series.

Utah’s offense roared onto the court as they assisted all nine of their first baskets, going on a 14 to two spurt, the first of a bunch of lopsided runs that would mark the night. But the Thunder powered back with an 18 to two run of their own, taking a 30 to 22 lead by quarter’s end.

The Thunder were hitting their threes, the formula that resulted in their Game 1 victory, having made six of 10 in the first period. Yet the good feelings of that eight-point lead evaporated when Steven Adams was whistled for his third foul with 9:20 left in the second quarter. Adams has played much of the series with foul trouble, and the Thunder’s rebounding percentage has plunged down near forty percent with him off the floor.

With no shot blocker and the offensive glass ripe for picking, Utah’s offense hit high gear. In the second and third quarters combined, the Jazz scored 67 points while shooting 50-percent from the field and parading to the free throw line 23 times in Adam’s absence. The catalyst was Ricky Rubio, who scored 19 points on the first half. In half a season he has transformed into the type of offensive player that should surprise no one with such an offensive display. He’s simply done this type of heavy lifting too often for anyone to be shocked, even in the first home playoff game of his career.  

Meanwhile, with the overpowering New Zealander out, likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert owned the paint. He scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the middle two quarters while captaining Utah’s defense as it finally, for the first time this series, grabbed a strangle hold of a game. Oklahoma City shot less than 39-percent in the middle two quarters, managing only 45 points.

It was a nineteen point swing that saw the Jazz with a 14-point lead and rabid crowd entering the fourth quarter. After a sluggish start that winnowed the lead to seven, Utah reeled off its last devastating run of the night, a 13 to nothing burst punctuated by Joe Ingles’s fifth three of the night in the Aussie’s breakout game in the series. 

With Utah’s starters scoring 98 points and the Thunder’s Big Three held to seven points in the fourth quarter1, the Jazz won going away to grab a two game to one lead in the series.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Ricky Rubio (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 2 threes, 6 free throws) and Rudy Gobert (18 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 6 free throws)

Before the regular season, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said the newly appropriated Rubio may well approximate a Utah version of Hall of Famer Jason Kidd. For the first half of the season that looked laughable. In the second half, it suddenly started to look plausible. The Thunder have faced that Kidd facsimile thus far in the playoffs and have had no answer. Rubio carried Utah’s offense once again in the first half tonight with his 19 points, and finished his first home playoff game with his fifth career triple double. He is now averaging 20 points, over eight rebounds, and eight assists in the series to go along with better than two steals. More importantly, Utah is plus-23 with Rubio on the floor in the series compared to a minus-31 for Westbrook. Right now, Westbrook is losing that matchup to Rubio who is hitting shots like this running three to end the third quarter:

Gobert finally started to impose his will on the Thunder in the second half of game two with Adams out with foul trouble, and that same situation helped him take hold of this whole game, especially in the second half. That Gobert was credited with only a single block is ludicrous. He got his hand on at least a couple other shots and so dominated the Thunder in the paint that they essentially stopped attacking the rim for much of the second half. With Gobert on full prowl, Utah’s defense locked in and took control of the series with their Stifle Tower storming and strutting his way to an easy home victory.   

Secondary Star: Joe Ingles (21 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 5 threes) and Donovan Mitchell (22 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 4 threes)

In the first two games Ingles was a glaring vulnerability, essentially blotted out of the game by George’s defense. Tonight Jazz head coach Quin Snyder made the adjustment of bring Ingles off screens in new ways and played him stretched far away from action off ball, more the role he filled last year. The result was 10 three point shots, and the dead-eye Aussie buried half of them. Also, by changing his substitution pattern, Snyder gave Ingles more minutes with George off the floor, and in those situations he did handle the ball, managing a series-high four assists. If Ingles plays like this, the Thunder defense cannot win. They simply can’t clog the middle against Utah’s awesome rim rollers in Gobert and Favors, and the penetration of Mitchell, while locking down a flared out Ingles.

Mitchell continues to manufacture points for this team, not as efficiently as some might hope (it took him 20 shots for his 22 points), but more than well enough to drive the Jazz offense. Nearly as important has been his rebounding. The rookie didn’t have a single game of double figure rebounds all season. Now he’s manged that in back-to-back playoff games against the league’s best offensive rebounding team, and that guard rebounding (along with Rubio) has exposed the limitations of the Thunder’s isolation-heavy offense.  

Secret Star: Royce O’Neale (7 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound, 2 steals, 1 block, 2 threes)

The only Jazz bench player to end the night with a positive plus-minus (plus-two), O’Neale provided his typical tough defense on George and constant energy and even hit two of his three attempts from long range. Utah’s bench hasn’t shown much this series, but with the starters playing as well as they are it doesn’t take much to make the difference. If O’Neale can limit his mistakes of enthusiasm (such as a bonehead skip pass lobbed out above the three point line and out of bounds in the fourth quarter) and simply make a respectable number of open jumpers, he can provide valuable solidity from the pine. 

Stats of the Game

11 – Combined steals (seven) and blocks (four) by Utah’s starters. Four players had both a steal and a block: Mitchell (2/1), Rubio (2/1), Gobert (1/1), and Favors (1/1).

97.62 – The game’s pace, right on the Jazz’s season average. They dictated the style of play and crushed the Thunder.

Plus-38.8 – Utah’s net rating in the decisive second and third quarters. They were elite both offensively (130.3 points per 100 possessions) and defensively (91.5) in that stretch.

29 – Utah’s point advantage in second chance points (19 to eight) and off of turnovers (33 to 15). Those are Thunder strengths. When Utah wins them, Utah wins the game.

15 – Utah’s rebounding advantage, 48 to 33. They more than doubled up the Thunder on the offensive glass, 13 to six.

Sundries

  • Utah needed to shake Joe Ingles away from George’s defense, and Snyder’s adjustments did just that. It was brilliant to watch. Early and often in the first quarter the changes were clear. Ingles would run baseline and curl around a screen but rather than dart to the three point line or to the top of the key to receive the ball, he’d turn nearly 180 degrees around the screen and dive back toward the hoop. George was forced to chase that whole half turn, which gave Ingles opportunities at the rim early. Also, the Jazz started running actions with four men on one side of the floor, with Gobert and Favors in the middle of the paint, and Ingles stretched far into no man’s land in the corner. Then they would move the ball to the middle of the floor and dare Ingle’s defender to help. The Thunder’s priority is packing the paint, so when they did there was a massive space to cover getting back to Ingles. Too far, it turned out. 
  • The difference between these two offenses was stark tonight. The Thunder rely so incredibly heavily on isolation and shot creation by ball handlers in the pick and roll. The Jazz, on the other hand, move the ball from side to side, and move players side to side and back to front in the half court, which essentially forces the Oklahoma City defense to be in perpetual motion. When Utah stopped over-helping on dribble penetration and cut off kick out passes to three point shooters, the Thunder turned the ball over repeatedly, giving Utah full court opportunities. That left the Thunder with attempts at the rim, which Gobert smothered, or long twos off the dribble as shooters were chased off the three point line. The Thunder don’t win this series taking those shots.
  • Westbrook and George are easily the Thunder’s best players, but Adams might just be their most irreplaceable. Their offense relies heavily on his excellent screening (as Utah’s does Gobert’s) and he’s the foundation of their defense. His foul trouble this series, which is honestly deserved2, has really hurt the Thunder. Gobert and Favors combined for another eight offensive rebounds tonight, more than the entire Thunder team. If Adams can’t stay on the floor, they can’t win this series.   
  • For years the value of the Gobert-Favors tandem has been hotly debated. In this series, it’s been awesome. The pair have played 71 minutes together and are outscoring the Thunder by 19.6 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. With both on the floor, Utah has a true shooting percentage of 59 percent and the Jazz consume nearly 58 percent of available rebounds. The pair played just over 29 minutes together tonight and crushed Oklahoma City by 28 in that time. Welcome to the Wasatch Front!

Three games in it’s fairly clear: Utah is the better of these two teams. The Thunder’s advantage has been the common talking point that they have have the series’s two best players in Westbrook and George. Westbrook is averaging a triple double but still has a series worst plus-minus of negative-10.3. George is putting up 26 points per game and shooting 48-percent from three while playing elite defense, though admittedly not to the same standard tonight.

How much better can they honestly expect to be?

Sure, Westbrook might shoot better than 36-percent from the field, but a large part of that is Rubio hounding him outside and Gobert’s arms raining down on him at the rim. It’s hard to imagine George being drastically better than he has been to this point. Tonight, Carmelo Anthony had an efficient night of 14 points on only 10 shot attempts. Did anyone notice? Should they have?

So long as Utah plays well, the Thunder can only win games in this series if one or more of their stars explode, as George did in Game 1. Oklahoma City’s bench outscored Utah’s 32 to 17 tonight and they still got blown out. The Jazz are deeper than their opponent, more comfortable, more confident, and get the next contest at home in front of what is widely being recognized as the best fanbase in this year’s playoffs.  Undoubtedly, the Jazz are already thinking of Monday night back in Vivent Smart Home Arena and grabbing a three to one lead in this series. 

At this point, the Thunder must be thinking the same exact thing. 

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. Paul Johnson says:

    I thought Dante made a lot of rookie mistakes (turnovers) on offense tonight, but with the Jazz dominating the game, Quinn just let him play through his mistakes. It’s easy to see the talent just oozing out of Dante, though, and I’m licking my chops to see what he can do next season, when he finally gets a full regular season to work on his development on the court (when not coming off a knee injury).

    I know he is now in his 4th year in the league, but he has really only played two of those 4 years. With the right development, he could be an absolute lock-down defender on defense, and John-Wall-esque on offense.

    Presuming that Dante can be re-signed in free agency, a guard rotation next season of Rubio, Mitchell, Exum and O’Neale (and who knows who else–a rookie such as Donte DiVincenzo or Lonnie Walker; a free agent such as Tyreke Evans, if Alec Burks can be traded in a salary dump trade; or Alec Burks with one more year in Quin’s system, if he can’t be traded) is going to be awesome.

    I know the center position for Utah is already a strength, particularly assuming that Favors can be re-signed in free agency. However, if the Suns select Deandre Ayton in the draft, and decide not to hold onto Alex Len, I think he would be an awesome free agent pickup for the Jazz. He is both big and long and also has some offensive skills (which are still in need of development, however). I think he has been extremely under-utilized and under-deveoped in Phoenix, and would be an awesome backup for Gobert and Favors–and would make the Jazz’s center position even more dominant. I think he might be able to be signed for the mid-level exception, because I think he is a bit undervalued at this point in his career.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I agree that of all Utah’s players, Exum seems to be affected the most by the playoff stage. He’s playing too fast much of the time and is being bated into mistakes. That said, he’s also making a solid number of plays for the team in his limited minutes. I’m not sure how the injuries have affected his upside, but I do think he’ll end up being a significantly better player than he is right now, which is encouraging.

  2. John Jenkins says:

    Great take on last nights game Clint. The analysis was spot on. Russell would drive into the paint and pull up or pass out due to the Jazz defense by the guards and Rudy’ shadow in the paint. Part of Adams problem is he has had to guard both Rudy and Derrick and they pose unique separate problems. It helps to add to his foul total. His take down of Donovan should have had him gone earlier. I think Patterson and Felton were big positives for the Thunder. God does George push off and hold! Jae needs to be more shot selective and Dante needs to use more change of pace dribbles. The Jazz need to resign Derrick, the work horse, and Dante .

    • Clint Johnson says:

      It was incredible Adams wasn’t called for that near-slam of Mitchell, wasn’t it! It’s been a pretty physical series, but that was glaring. But I LOVE how the rookie has been fearless is crashing into Adams to help rebound. When Gobert’s struggling with Adams, Mitchell will body him from the side, almost like a chip block in football. He’s even willing to box out the monster on his own. Mitchell really has no fear.

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