1. Enes Kanter made this game about him, and the Thunder were punished for it.
There was a very simple way forward for Enes Kanter today: he could have thanked the organization for his time here, said that it wasn’t an ideal fit, but still wished it would have worked out, and moved forward.1 But instead, Enes ripped the Jazz organization in his comments after shootaround this morning, which changed everything. All of a sudden, this game was about him, and his Shakespearean fight against the franchise that wronged him, rather than Oklahoma City’s fight to retain their playoff spot. And naturally, everyone involved in that attacked franchise was fighting back: the players, the coaches, the fans were all seeking to defend their honor and reputation against the traitor Enes Kanter.
Seem strong? Not if you listen to the quotes from the players themselves.
Trey Burke said that “It was very personal… we all felt disrespected.”
Gordon Hayward said that this game mattered more than the typical game: “with things that were said by a former player2. We wanted this one bad. We all heard what that former player said. It’s just one of those things that, I think he pissed us off a little bit, honestly. We just wanted to make sure that we won.”
Trevor Booker, who hasn’t yet been in Utah for a whole season, defended the Jazz organization, which Kanter had called unprofessional.. “It’s an A-1 organization: great group of guys, great staff, great management, great coaching. So we aren’t worried about what he said.” Then, he took a swipe at Kanter himself: “He got his stats, but as always, he took the L.”
Whoa! Think about how intense that quote is! Enes Kanter played 49 games this season with the Jazz. 6 weeks ago, Enes Kanter was a part of the Jazz. Those aforementioned Ls were while on the same side as Booker, Burke, and Hayward. And everyone mostly liked him! Even after he demanded a trade, Jazz players defended him. Even after he was traded, Jazz players said nice things about him. But then when he came back to Utah for the first time and attacked everything about the Jazz, everyone felt like they had to defend themselves.
That was only compounded by what happened during the game itself. Kanter came out and egged on the fans as they booed him, asking for more and cupping his hands to his ears like a wrestling villain3. None of the Jazz players recognized him before the tip, though they did all 4 of the other Thunder players. After making a free throw, Kanter held his hand up in a follow-through while walking the entire length of the court as he relished the boos. Both Booker and Gobert took hard fouls against Kanter. It was incredible theater.
I still can’t believe that it all happened like it did. Props to Kanter for his honesty, but I can’t think of any player who has ever admitted quite a grudge like that against a former organization. He’ll be a villain in Utah forever.
2. Jazz made a change in pick-and-roll defense in the 2nd quarter that turned around the game.
Thirteen minutes through the game, the Jazz were in serious trouble. They were down 37-21 against Oklahoma City, largely due to the Thunder’s 9-10 shooting from within the restricted area. Nearly all of those attempts came from Westbrook pick and rolls with either Kanter or McGary, who both were easily able to finish once they were within 3 feet of the hoop. The Jazz came out overly focused on the threat of Westbrook, which allowed him to make the pass to the rolling big man for easy layups.
But then the Jazz made an adjustment: rather than allowing those roll passes, the Jazz started helping drastically from the perimeter. Whoever was guarding the perimeter threat above the break of the three point line sunk into the key, getting in between the roll man and the ballhandler. This was remarkably successful: the Jazz had 8 turnovers in the rest of the 2nd quarter that propelled them on the 16-5 and 10-1 runs that brought them back into the game. The Thunder never truly adjusted to the Jazz’s new scheme: the Thunder put up just a 72.8 offensive rating for the final 35 minutes of the contest.
3. Christapher Johnson, just given a new contract, made an impact on the game both offensively and defensively.
Dante Exum, the only Jazz PG able to defend Russell Westbrook capably, picked up a 2nd foul very early in this game, another factor in the Thunder’s offensive explosion in the 1st quarter. He was upset at the call:
But when Trey Burke, the natural replacement, also had to go out for rest, new signing Christapher Johnson got the Russell Westbrook assignment, and performed actually incredibly well, using his length to disrupt Westbrook’s speed advantages. That’s reflected in Johnson’s team-high plus-minus total: +8.
I asked Johnson about his assignment: “He’s a tough guard, but I thought we did a good job throwing different bodies at him.” Johnson was a big part of that defensive success during the Jazz’s most successful stretch of the game.
But it wasn’t just the defensive success: Johnson also hit the biggest shot of the game late in the 4th quarter. On that play with 3 minutes left, he got the rebound, and immediately sprinted to the opposite deep corner for a transition 3. It’s actually a remarkable play to watch, one that definitely doesn’t happen without Johnson’s hustle down the floor when everyone else was tired. Utah’s really struggled with transition baskets this season, and one reason is the lack of urgency in the situations exactly like the one Johnson took advantage of tonight.