SALT LAKE CITY — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 113-96 Game 4 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder from KSL.com's Utah Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz match Thunder physicality to win Game 4
Clearly, Oklahoma City came in with a game plan: use playoff-level physicality to disrupt the Jazz. Throughout the game, they tried to stop the off-ball player movement and the passing that's the staple of the Jazz's offense.
The Thunder did put their stamp on the game. The two teams shared seven technical fouls, four for the Jazz, three for the Thunder. Jae Crowder was the only one ejected, but nearly every other star in this game sat on the verge of getting kicked out at any moment.
That level of physicality is something that the Jazz have traditionally struggled with in the Quin Snyder era. And it makes sense: the Jazz are an execution team. If a cut gets stopped, that next cut doesn't have the space to run. If a screen doesn't work, these guys aren't reliable enough in one-on-one basketball to score efficiently.
But on Monday night, the Jazz showed that they wouldn't be punked. They fought back every time the Thunder challenged them, fought through every hold, and supported every teammate when they found themselves in battle. There were a ton of scrums in this game, but you never felt that the Jazz were overmatched in any of them. Here's a 9-minute YouTube video with all of the non-basketball action:
And that fight comes despite the complete lack of playoff experience on the Jazz. The Jazz starting five has an average of seven playoff games played; neither member of the Jazz's backcourt has played in the playoffs before. Meanwhile, the Thunder average 60 games each of playoff experience.
First of all, it probably goes to show that playoff experience isn't as important as we all think. Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell are playing either as good or better than they did in the regular season. But you also just have to give credit to the Jazz for playing with the focus that the moment required to get a 3-1 series lead.
It's not over yet, but the Jazz are one win away from going on to the conference semifinals.
2. Russell Westbrook is OKC's problem
After Game 3, Russell Westbrook made himself the narrative by guaranteeing that Rubio would be shut down in Game 4. Would Westbrook be successful in his goal?
Well, he came out with aggression, trying to prove that he was going to play tough defense on Rubio.
Russell Westbrook playing defense is alarming. pic.twitter.com/NPXqF5q2to— Matt (@MontaWorldPeace) April 24, 2018
That play is actually a good representation of what happened for the rest of the game. Westbrook showed aggression, that aggression caused him to beat himself, and Rubio had a temporary 5-on-4 on offense. Sure, nothing panned out with it, but the Jazz had an advantage.
Westbrook found himself in foul trouble. The first one was for tripping Rubio coming off a screen, the second for pushing Rubio on an inbounds play, giving the Jazz an extra free throw. The third was iffy, a block by Westbrook that Bill Kennedy gave the foul to Westbrook instead of Jerami Grant. That saddled Westbrook with bad foul trouble with 7:25 left in the first half.
But Billy Donovan chose to play his MVP and Westbrook predictably picked up his fourth foul on a charge. It was an unwise play. If you have three fouls, you need to be careful about using your aggression to drive into people at the perimeter — Westbrook wasn't.
So the Thunder had to completely change their defensive strategy in the second half. Because Rubio was doing such a good job of drawing fouls, Westbrook would guard Joe Ingles instead. That put Paul George on Donovan Mitchell and Corey Brewer on Rubio.
That led to plays like this.
Rudy Gobert gets a alley-oop here: pic.twitter.com/oMNBpA1qpc— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 24, 2018
I'm not 100 percent Westbrook should be stopping Rudy Gobert's roll here. After all, it is Ingles in the corner that he would be leaving. But clearly, the new configuration didn't work; Westbrook is a really bad off-ball defender.
The Thunder called timeout after a 9-0 Utah run in just two minutes and tried something new: they'd just switch every screen. The Jazz just used this to abuse the mismatches they'd get, including and especially Derrick Favors.
Then Favors backs Westbrook down low pic.twitter.com/BqZE4Mgj4e— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 24, 2018
Westbrook's insistence that the game was about him put his team in a terrible defensive position.
But it wasn't quite done yet. I haven't been able to find clear video of the play, but with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter, Westbrook was set to check in at the scorer's table. That's when Raymond Felton fouled Rudy Gobert, inadvertently hitting him in the groin. Gobert turned to walk away but was confronted by Westbrook, who gave Gobert a quick slap.
The question: was Westbrook waved on the court by the officials or was he leaving the bench area to participate in an altercation? The latter would be an ejection and a suspension for Game 5.
A pool reporter request to the game officials to ask them about the play was initiated, but the NBA indicated that the officials wouldn't comment on the matter because it would be reviewed by the league's disciplinary committee.
Regardless, Westbrook confronting Gobert again potentially puts the Thunder in a horrible position, potentially playing a closeout game without their MVP.
3. Donovan Mitchell is a quite talented basketball player
Jazz rookie Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring once again with 33 points on 13-28 shooting from the field, adding seven rebounds and four assists.
Perhaps most impressive is what he didn't do: turn over the ball. Mitchell had zero turnovers during the game, nearly incomprehensible for someone who took that large of a role in a game against the league's leading turnover-forcing defense.
Some of these finishes at the rim are incredible. He's so talented at using his wingspan to get the ball to the rim in places he shouldn't, reaching around and past defenders to lay the ball softly at the glass. Mitchell is also going in between multiple defenders to make these plays, but keeps the ball out of reach.
Some impressive stats for you:
- Mitchell is the first rookie from any team to score 30 points in a playoff game since 2010.
- With Mitchell's 33 points tonight, he set a Jazz rookie playoff record, passing Karl Malone (who scored 31 against Dallas in 1986).
- Mitchell is also the third rookie in the last 50 years to score 110 points in his first four playoff games. The other two? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
I can't even imagine just how good Mitchell could be with an offseason to work on and refine his game. He's been the best offensive player in a series with three Olympians and the reigning MVP — all in his first season. Jazz fans are going to get to watch something special for a long time.