On the primary defensive possession of Recreation Four, Russell Westbrook clapped his arms as he settled into his hips — the signal that he was centered and prepared for the sport forward.
For the Jazz, the depth took barely longer to reach.
However after a sluggish begin — lacking pictures on the rim and open seems to be on the Three-point line, with play slowed down by near-constant whistles — a buzz started to construct. It gained quantity within the second quarter when Joe Ingles lastly broke a chilly streak with three straight Three-pointers in a minute-and-a-half. It began to surge when Donovan Mitchell was gaining steam charging the rim to shut the half.
Then, early within the third quarter, the vitality crested as Ricky Rubio threw a dart to Rudy Gobert on the rim for an alley-oop jam. Rubio screamed and pumped his fist, leaping into the air — and the ocean of 18,306 white-clad followers screamed with him.
It was the back-breaking second of what would possibly simply be the back-breaking recreation in a contentious first-round collection, with the Jazz taking Recreation Four, 113-96, on Monday night time at Vivint Sensible House Enviornment. Since Utah misplaced the opening recreation of the match-up, the present has been steadily shifting in its course with three straight wins.
As Mitchell took the ground for a postgame interview, the shouts of the world grew to become so loud, he backed away from the microphone. Then he stated one thing that made the followers even louder: “Yet one more.”
After the most recent victory, one during which Mitchell led the Jazz with 33 factors and the protection clamped down after a sluggish first quarter, it doesn’t simply appear doubtless that the Jazz, with a Three-1 collection lead, advance.
It appears inevitable.
Such was the crushing dominance with which the Jazz orchestrated the second and third quarters, after they outscored Oklahoma Metropolis 66-43. The fourth quarter wasn’t remotely aggressive: The Jazz lead hovered close to 20 factors all through, and the one query was the ultimate margin — not the outcome.
However predictably, the Jazz didn’t situation any declarative statements themselves.
“Each recreation’s been bodily,” stated Rudy Gobert, delivering a straight-faced cliche. “We simply acquired to observe the tape, see how a lot better we are able to get, and prepare to play basketball.”
Essentially the most-watched subplot of the night time had been set since moments after Recreation Three ended, when Rubio helped lead the Jazz to a win with a triple-double. Westbrook, who spent a lot of the night time guarding him, assured when it got here to Rubio, he would “shut that s*** off.”
Westbrook was nearly as good as his phrase early, holding Rubio to six factors on 1 of 5 taking pictures within the first half. However Rubio took again one thing much more invaluable: fouls.
Every of Westbrook’s 4 fouls within the first half got here whereas he was guarding him. Rubio used Westbrook’s aggression in opposition to him, exaggerating contact when Westbrook tried to test him, or falling to the courtroom when Westbrook tried to fend him off. After he picked up his third within the second quarter, Thunder coach Billy Donovan stated he trusted Westbrook to play by means of it, with the rule of thumb to not decide up any “foolish fouls.”
With 1:36 left within the first half, Westbrook picked up an offensive foul in opposition to Rubio — his fourth — and was despatched to the bench to the delight of the jeering crowd. When the second half started, he was principally switched off of Rubio, who completed with 13 factors, eight assists and 6 rebounds.
Westbrook had a special tone after Recreation Four, saying he needed to “get previous” the one-on-one match-up. In his personal postgame feedback, Rubio stated he seen Westbrook’s added depth. He didn’t take it personally.
“In fact they’re attempting to be extra aggressive — the entire staff,” Rubio stated. “It’s the identical factor we did in Recreation 2. We misplaced Recreation 1 and we tried to return out extra aggressive and we needed to play higher. We’re going to attempt to play higher in Recreation 5, they usually’ll do the identical factor.”
In the meantime, Jazz gamers had warned that specializing in simply one in every of them would include penalties. That omen got here to fruition as Mitchell reduce by means of the Thunder protection like tissue paper, laying in baskets with the benefit that normally involves the celebrities of Oklahoma Metropolis. Together with his Recreation Four efficiency, he grew to become solely the third rookie within the final 50 years to attain 110 factors or extra in his first 4 video games — following Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
Ingles missed his first 4 pictures, then had three straight, fueling an 11-Four run to take a 58-52 lead into the half after the Jazz had trailed for a lot of the beginning.
On the opposite aspect of the scorer’s desk, it was an iffy night time for the Thunder’s greatest. Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony mixed for 21-of-57 from the sphere. George led with 32 factors, whereas Westbrook had 23 factors and 14 rebounds. As a staff, the Thunder have been abysmal from past the arc, taking pictures simply 5 for 26 on Three-pointers.
Essentially the most imposing the Thunder regarded within the recreation got here in altercations all through the night time that required officers to separate gamers. The crew doled out seven technical fouls whole, and Jae Crowder was ejected. Westbrook managed to skirt out the remainder of the sport with only one foul within the second half, regardless of quite a few tie-ups with Jazzmen — together with one sequence the place he threw Rubio to the ground.
The collection continues Wednesday night time in Oklahoma Metropolis. The Thunder known as Recreation Four a “must-win.” After the Jazz torched them Monday night time, Recreation 5 really will probably be.
“It’s the playoffs: It’s gonna be conflict,” Rubio stated. “We all know that it’s gonna be one other conflict subsequent recreation. We simply need to be robust, however on the identical time mentally prepared for that.”