Recurring Rivalries of Yesteryear Suggest Jazz, Thunder Just Getting Started

September 10th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Looking at the modern-day Jazz-Thunder series against a historical backdrop makes it clear: the Jazz might not be done dealing with OKC.

For a two-week stretch in late April of 2018, the Utah Jazz played indisputably better basketball than the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s a fact. We saw it, and there’s a historical record of a 4-2 playoff series victory to corroborate. And here’s what that fact, those two weeks’ worth of games, prove about the relative quality of the Jazz and Thunder moving forward:

Absolutely nothing.

There’s a growing sentiment among Jazz fans, tweeps and even some influencers that seems to indicate that the Jazz have passed that level in their video game-style quest to cross off achievements on their way to a triumphant final battle with Bowser. The problem is that a team’s ascent through a crowded field of contenders and quasi-contenders is almost never that linear, especially in the modern-day Western Conference. 

Last season, a staggering seven teams in the conference finished with somewhere between 46 and 49 wins, including the fourth-seeded Thunder and fifth-place Jazz, who finished with identical 48-34 records. And yes, the Jazz have reason to believe they’re better than last year’s baseline: They expect to get a full healthy season from their defensive game changer, Rudy Gobert, who missed a third of his team’s games. They moved on from players who didn’t help the team win. And they have a talented core that includes at least a couple of future perennial All-Stars.

Guess what, though: OKC also has reason to believe that its point of departure is something better than a 48-win outfit. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. They expect to get a full healthy season from their defensive game changer, Andre Roberson, who missed a half of his team’s games. They moved on from maybe the worst player in last year’s NBA in terms of macro value. And they have a talented core that includes a guy who has already been MVP and another who has made the All-NBA team four times. Those two guys are 29 and 28 years old, respectively, so they have at least a few years left at or near their peak.

Which is why the final chapter in this rivalry is far from written.

So no, it’s not really that obvious who’s going to be better next season, and if the two teams face each other again next postseason, it will be another battle, one that could end with a number of different outcomes. That’s because playoff victories aren’t like merit badges that you pass off once and then you forever have that patch crudely sewn to your puke green sash while you move on to the next challenge. And if you don’t believe me, let’s consult with previous generations of Jazz players, who checked off opponent one year only to find themselves facing — and sometimes failing — the same test within a couple of years.

On their pathway to relevance, the pre-John Stockton Jazz defeated the Denver Nuggets in a 1984 playoff series. Just 12 months later, those same Nuggets sent them home in a hurry, issuing the Jazz a 1-4 defeat in the second round in Stockton’s rookie season.

That offseason, the Jazz added a power forward from Louisiana Tech with the No. 13 pick in the draft, but even with Karl Malone there, they still had to take turns winning and losing series against Western Conference foes throughout the Stockton-and-Malone era. They beat the Blazers in the first round in 1988, but lost to them in the second round in 1991 and in the 1992 conference finals. They evened the score against Portland with a first-round win in 1996, but then suffered a second-round elimination at the Blazers’ hands in both 1999 and 2000. Back and forth we go, even for a team that was one of the best of that decade.

They also beat a quality Rockets team in 1985 but then lost to them in both of the years during Michael Jordan’s retirement, which likely cost them a couple of shots at a ring. Utah got the next two, but by that point MJ was back to terrorizing the league. The Jazz also earned their first ever conference finals trip by defeating the Sonics in the second round in 1992, but the following year they couldn’t get past Seattle in the first round. They lost again to the Sonics in 1996, but beat them in 2000.

And isn’t that awesome?! Lest readers think this is an attempt to throw water on the current fan base’s excitement, it’s not. To the contrary, it’s actually supremely entertaining when teams with competing strengths and liabilities hang out in roughly the same tier for years at a time. That’s how true rivalries are cultivated. For an even more extreme look at how really good teams have to play some cat-and-mouse with other really good teams in their era, consider the Spurs’ historic run of success over the past 20 years. If the Spurs were under the impression that they had passed off the “Lakers level” of their video game with a 4-0 sweep on the way to their first title in 1999, imagine their confusion when they later lost twice to the same Lakers, then beat them, then lost two more times, then won again. 

Any squad that has enjoyed a protracted period of playoff success has experienced this phenomenon of going back-and-forth with other teams in their range. That’s because a playoff series can turn sharply based on player health, a hot or cold streak, a fluke suspension, a random bad call, or subtle game plan adjustments. Any combination of those factors can make a chasm between two teams feel pretty wide over a particular 4- to 7-game sample, but that doesn’t necessarily make the outcome of that series predictive of all future matchups.

Such is the case with the 2018 Jazz-Thunder series, where it the chasm was arguably not all that wide. In retrospect it feels like a shellacking because the Jazz used back-to-back home blowouts to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. But had a few things gone differently, it’s not like OKC wasn’t in the zip code. If Thunder fans went looking for optimistic signs coming out of that series, they could find them. OKC won Games 1 and 5 by deploying its starpower and getting tremendous performances out of Westbrook and Paul George. Game 2 was the real series-maker for Utah, and OKC’s third best player was limited in that one due to foul trouble. Yet even with Steven Adams playing only 22 minutes, it was a narrow win for Utah. Neither team had more than a two-possession lead during the entire fourth quarter, and it was actually knotted at 89 with roughly four minutes to go. From that point forward, Utah scored eight of its 10 points from the free throw line. It wouldn’t take too much to flip that game in OKC’s favor, and then the whole series has a different dynamic. 

For that matter, even the clincher was tight. To hold off the Thunder’s late run, Utah had to survive that harrowing possession that included six (SIX!) Thunder attempts and a controversial1 no-call that, to be honest, could have gone either way. Again, flip a possession or two in that game, and you’re headed back to Bricktown for a Game 7 in Russ’ gym. 

And again, the context matters. OKC played the entire series without a guy who was getting serious buzz as the DPOY frontrunner before his injury, and they gave upwards of 32 minutes per playoff outing to Carmelo Anthony, who was mostly really bad. And even with all of that, Utah needed to weather two close ones to advance. And that’s how it should be when two good teams square off with those stakes. The reality is that most playoff games are decided by a handful of mistakes, big shots, poorly executed plays, or calls that could have gone either way. That’s the chaos that makes postseason basketball so electric. If that randomness bothers you, then you don’t get to complain about the Warriors’ superteam. 

We’re talking about the Thunder, but really this is more of a parable about the nature of fighting your way up the mountain, a preamble to the playoff runs in years to come that will surely bring Jazz fans their share of both excitement and heartbreak. People often talk about contention like climbing a ladder, one rung and then the next, a succession of steps moving ever upward. Reality is harsher than that. Contention is rarely that linear. A playoff win doesn’t put a team in your rear view mirror or guarantee any future success, and the Jazz’s own franchise ancestors are acutely aware of that.

The Jazz are a dang good team. They’re probably going to get better. And because of that, they will earn the right to spar repeatedly with other really good teams. They’ll win some. They’ll lose some. And regardless, unlocking those opportunities to create multi-year playoff rivalries is an achievement in and of itself.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *