Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook fumbled the basketball as the Jazz’s Dante Exum tried to grab it. Sprawling on the court, Westbrook somehow poked the ball toward teammate Raymond Felton, who buried a 3-pointer from the left corner.
In that moment, nothing suggested Saturday would be the Jazz’s night.
Instead, these are the plays everyone will remember from the Jazz’s 115-102 victory: Royce O’Neale’s drilling a 3-pointer from the left wing after taking Joe Ingles’ pass and Rudy Gobert dunking the ball with Exum’s assist late in the third quarter. And then Rudy Gobert rebounded Ingles’ miss and threw it to Ricky Rubio, who tossed in a one-footed 3-pointer as the period ended, pushing the Jazz’s lead to 14 points.
And these are the sights and sounds that nobody would have imagined, as of mid-January: A classic playoff environment with Vivint Smart Home Arena’s seats systematically colored to match the court with orange, red and yellow T-shirts distributed to fans, who delivered chants of “Ru-bi-o” as the point guard produced a triple-double of 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
That kind of tribute hardly seemed likely in the middle of the season when Rubio was viewed as the Jazz’s biggest liability. Yet here we are in April, and he has performed brilliantly in the Jazz’s two wins in this series. His total numbers in Games 2 and 3 were 48 points, 18 rebounds and 19 assists.
And now the math gets even more interesting: If the Jazz follow through with another home-court win Monday, they’ll have a 3-1 lead in the series. In that case, they would need only a Game 6 victory Friday at Vivint to close out the Thunder.
When the Jazz were wobbling, Rubio said, “I just changed my mentality, trying to be more aggressive and make some shots.”
The Jazz played their way into this position Saturday by recovering from an 11-point deficit in the second quarter as they exploited Thunder center Steven Adams’ foul trouble. They surged ahead in the third period and then withstood a mild OKC rally in the fourth quarter, thanks to Ingles’ 3-point shooting.
The Jazz justifiably were in a good mood afterward. Rubio and Ingles, who scored 21 points, appeared together in the postgame news conference. Rubio playfully jabbed Ingles about missing a layup — while he was being fouled, in Ingles’ defense — that could have given Rubio his 10th assist. “Lucky I’ve got Rudy Gobert on my team too,” Rubio said.
Anyone who experienced the Vivint atmosphere would wonder how the Jazz ever lose in this building. The truth is, they lost vital games to Atlanta and Boston late in the season, a year after going only 1-4 at home against the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State in the playoffs.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder was worried that his players might be so pumped up by the arena’s atmosphere that they would lose concentration in the early stages.
“Sometimes the enthusiasm of the crowd … although it’s going to give you energy, that energy has to be targeted into the right things,” Snyder said before the game.
The boisterous support undoubtedly helped the Jazz, when things got tough for them Saturday.
Ingles described the environment as “completely different than last year,” suggesting fans have embraced this Jazz team to a greater degree. “We play a fun style,” he said, “and I think fans enjoy it.”
“There’s nothing like having the crowd on your side … they’re relentless,” Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell said after his first home playoff experience.
Even the Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony said, “For me, it was a great atmosphere. I think games like this are definitely fun.”
In last April’s case, the Jazz lost Game 3 to the Clippers after splitting the first two games in Los Angeles. The Jazz then won Game 4 at home and Game 5 on the road, before missing a close-out opportunity at home in Game 6.
They responded by winning Game 7 on the road. This Jazz team is largely new, with departed players Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood having played major roles in that series. Even so, that snapshot of recent history raised questions about the Jazz’s ability to win home games in the playoffs, and how much the perceived home-court advantage of Vivint would help them.
Some answers came Saturday. Oklahoma City went ahead 39-28 early in the second quarter, before a critical whistle helped the Jazz. Adams went to the bench with his third foul. Just as they did in the last three minutes of Game 2 after Adams fouled out, the Jazz exploited his absence. Even though they wasted their last three offensive possessions of the half as Rubio cooled off, the Jazz took a 58-53 halftime lead.
The Jazz fell behind briefly in the third quarter, but Adams exited again and the home team just kept coming.