Going into the night, Oklahoma City had won only 3 of 13 games, including dropping six straight – ample time to learn how little chance they have of out-talenting other NBA teams without the reigning MVP Kevin Durant and his Batman-quality Robin, Russell Westbrook. So to shift the outcome from the last time these teams tangled1, they changed strategy: they would muscle up, and muddy up, the game.
With 3:49 left in the first quarter, Utah led 25 – 15 and looked well on its way to once again outpacing the hobbled Thunder. Then the home team upped the defensive aggression and physicality. They started trapping screens, not simply showing off picks but practically sprinting into the Jazz ball handler. Defenders bodied up Jazz players off the ball, smothering passing lanes. Whenever a Jazz player tried to move, there was a little shove to the hip, or tug of the jersey, or in Kendrick Perkins’ case, one meaty shoulder into Gordon Hayward’s chin.2 It didn’t matter at all that the Jazz outshot them from the line 28 attempts to 10. The feistiness was so abundant that Jeremy Lamb fouled out of the game in only 24 minutes3.
The Jazz caved, the bench in particular.4 In spite of scoring 79 points between them, the starters didn’t do much better. From the late first quarter onward, the Thunder’s physicality and aggression undid all Jazz pace5, prevented all but the most non-threatening passes6, and completely confounded any sense of Jazz purpose. After scoring 9 points in the first 7:30 of the game, the pressure on Jazz ball handlers all but eliminated Derrick Favors as an offensive option, as he simply did not receive the ball. Gordon Hayward alone stood up under the Thunder toughness, fighting back with a veteran 24 points on 15 shots, to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals7. What Hayward showed in determination and toughness, he lacked in polish and poise. Its difficult to say which hampered the team more, his 8 turnovers or his 7 missed free throws.8
It’s common knowledge the Jazz are a young team, but they sure looked it in Oklahoma City.
They practically handed the Thunder their lunch money and pantsed themselves to save the bullies the trouble. New Jazz favorite Trevor Booker, recent super-sub Joe Ingles, slim secret weapon Rudy Gobert, and oh-so exciting Dante Exum combined for 70 minutes of play and 3 points. That’s right, 3, all from a clearly frustrated Exum.
Play after play, the bench proved utterly incapable of threatening the Thunder with anything remotely similar to scoring. To put in perspective just how manhandled the bench was, they turned the ball over 7 times while managing only 9 shots. On many possessions, Dante Exum dribbled the ball beyond the three point line and stared at his teammates who looked duly about, utterly confused at how the Thunder somehow managed to keep them from cutting or moving to set screens or pretty much anything except for stand there while the shot clock ran down. When someone would eventually push through a Thunder defender to set a screen or open himself for a pass, there were 10 to 12 seconds left to get a shot. As often as not, the ball stuck in the hands of that player as leadenly as it had Exum’s.
Perhaps in no game this season has the Jazz lack of a veteran presence off the bench been so noticeable. The young Utah reserves have been an issue this season, with Booker’s modest 7.9 points per game entering the contest against the Thunder serving as the closest thing the team has to a punch coming off the pine. But this was all-together something else. It’s not hard to imagine the starters succumbed to the Thunder roughnecking partially because they felt it was 11 on 5.
Oklahoma City hit 7 of their 9 three point shots in the first half, perhaps the only reason they entered the locker room with a 56 – 48 lead. They cooled off in the second half, adding another 5 threes on 17 more attempts. But the Jazz were completely unable to match the Thunder’s output from range, going 3 of 16 in a game where they struggled for long stretches to even approach the paint.
Hidden in an otherwise dismal team performance, Trey Burke had another solid if not spectacular game: 12 points on 10 shots including 2 of 5 from the three point line.9 Burke added 4 assists, tied with Alec Burks for the team high, as well as 2 rebounds with 0 turnovers. This makes Burke 8 of 18 from three in his last 5 games, a development the Jazz desperately need from the player who shot less than 22% from three in the first nine games of the season.
See, there’s always a bright side.