Everyone had their eyes on that first possession with Russell Westbrook guarding Ricky Rubio. Westbrook checked Rubio defensively the entire length of the court. Pushing, being physical, and getting in his face. That was the tone the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted to set. They wanted to be physical, intimidating, bullies, dirty, and petty. It didn’t help them one iota. For a team lacking playoff experience, All-Stars, and—supposedly—talent, the Utah Jazz looked every bit the part of the veteran, star laden team.
If you take a look at shooting you might be fooled into believing that Russell Westbrook “shut down that ****” when it came to Ricky Rubio’s game. Westbrook just fell into Utah’s trap. As Quin Snyder says, “The strength of the team is the team.” With Russell Westbrook protecting his ego rather than his team (he racked up 4—yes, you read that correctly—4 quick fouls in the 1st half alone), Ricky Rubio had the floor opened up to him like the red sea. He had 8 assists in the game with 7 rebounds. Most importantly, Rubio’s team was 18 points better when he was in the game.
Then there’s Russ. He played angry and out of control. Mr. Triple Double himself only had 3 assists in this game. He had 13 rebounds, but most of Russ’ play felt superfluous. Much like the lifted, souped up trucks in Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook’s stats were a lot of empty revving at a stop light that didn’t result in much more than what the Toyota Camry lined up next to it was able to offer. Sure it looked bad as hell. It provided some kick ass highlights, but it didn’t provide anything that car next to it could have offered, burnt excess gas and energy, and when it took off all it left was a trail of hot smoke. All looks, no substance.
Donovan Mitchell is an absolute star. No doubts about it. He silently dominated through three quarters then came swinging haymakers in the 4th quarter. Donovan Mitchell is realizing how easily he can get to the paint now. Much like Neo when he can see the Matrix, Donovan Mitchell is seeing the defense like zeros and ones. Donovan Mitchell now is on an exclusive list of NBA greats who have scored 110 points or more in their first four playoff games as rookies.
Donovan Mitchell finished with 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. The crazy thing is his scoring just feels automatic. It’s not if he’s going to score 20 or more points, it’s WHEN he’s going to score 20 or more points. Even though Donovan Mitchell gets his shots, it doesn’t feel like it’s breaking the offense. Watching the OKC Thunder, whenever one of their stars gets buckets, it feels like the offense has to grind to a halt.
The strength of Utah’s team is the team. Gobert finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Joe Ingles finished with 20 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists. Derrick Favors had 13 points and 4 rebounds. The Utah Jazz’s starting lineup has learned to play together and, my goodness, should the teams left in the Western Conference finals be scared about that. They trust each other.
Speaking about trust, the Utah Jazz’s bench has been up and down. Tonight was no exception with Jae Crowder and Dante Exum having rough first stints to start the game, then Royce O’Neale steadied the ship. Royce O’Neale’s stat line might look a little pedestrian 10 points on 3-5 shooting, but he added 9 rebounds. More importantly, he hit two big threes in the 2nd quarter to keep Utah in the game when it was danger time with OKC bullying Utah around. That was at a time when Utah couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn from distance.
It is absolutely laughable now that the Utah Jazz—a team with no All-Stars—is one game away from bouncing the team put on a pedestal at the beginning of the season as being a dark horse to making the NBA Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder had zero poise tonight. They tried to get into the Jazz’s heads with physicality. It failed. They tried to get the Jazz to play frantically. It failed. It only worked in reverse. Russ played out of control. His team played frantically. They tried to bully this Jazz team, but it only resulted in foul trouble, technicals, and firing up the Jazz’s home crowd. They swung at the hornet’s nest and missed.
The Utah Jazz will head into Oklahoma City on Wednesday with a chance to close out this series. The Thunder can’t be thrilled that the league’s best road team since January is rolling into town with a commanding 3-1.
Jae Crowder got ejected because his name wasn’t Paul George or Russell Westbrook.
This happened postgame.