Oklahoma City, Okla. • While they were competing against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz were also staring down another formidable opponent: Time.
The high-flying run of success the Jazz — winners of six straight games going into Tuesday night — was always going to come to an end. The question was when. And where.
In the end, it took three All-Stars to end Utah’s winning streak, with one of them playing at the level that made him MVP last season. The others showed up at the right time: Paul George and Carmelo Anthony made baskets in the final two minutes that extended the Thunder to a 100-94 win over the Jazz in front of a sellout crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
For Utah, playing the second night of a back-to-back after a midnight flight spanning two time zones, it was perhaps understandable, but disappointing all the same. Donovan Mitchell notched 31 points (19 in the second half), but the scoring dried up in a fourth quarter Oklahoma City dominated, 32-14.
“I thought our guys ran out of steam a bit, just emotionally,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We’ve got to be able to play through that.”
Over and again, Snyder implored his team to press in transition and force the Thunder out of its stingy halfcourt defense. That initial energy helped drive the Jazz a 17-point lead in the third quarter, as Mitchell again rose above rookie status to lead the way.
But in that critical fourth, fortunes flipped. The Jazz couldn’t grind out the buckets that had kept them ahead, and they went scoreless for more than five minutes as the Thunder crept closer: From up 12 points with 11 minutes left, the Jazz found themselves behind by three with 3:35 to go.
Russell Westbrook, befitting of his MVP title, came up with a triple-double as he delivered 34 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds. The Jazz had trouble containing his explosive drives, and his jumper was good enough to keep the defense close by on the perimeter.
But in the end it was a group effort: Anthony and George combined with Westbrook to score 25 of the Thunder’s 32 fourth-quarter points. After Alec Burks pirouetted for a layup and added an extra free throw, George, Anthony and Steven Adams (20 points, 9 rebounds) all scored before the Jazz could find an answer.
“They attacked us,” said Rudy Gobert, who struggled (five points, six rebounds) in his second game back from injury. “They got everything they wanted in the fourth quarter.”
It was the largest blown lead of the season for Utah. Before Tuesday night, the fourth quarter was Utah’s best with both the most points scored (26.5 ppg.) and the fewest points allowed (22.8 ppg.). Oklahoma City, on the other hand, had faced weeks of needling over its poor clutch play statistics.
Maybe it was the Thunder’s star power getting baskets, or the Jazz’s tired legs that contributed to short shots and missed rebounds. Maybe it was the missing elements Utah’s injured players would’ve provided: the scoring of Rodney Hood, or the late-game poise of Joe Johnson. Maybe it was a mix of all of the above.
“We definitely want to be that type of team that gets stops defensively, and we’ve been that team,” Mitchell said. “But credit to them with the way they played tonight.”
The Jazz put a cap on the best run of basketball they’ve played all season. During the six-game winning streak, the Jazz waxed five teams by 19 or more points, including a historically dominant home game against the Washington Wizards the night before.
It also featured a meteoric streak by Mitchell, who was again the toughest offensive player to guard against Oklahoma City. Taking into account his 31 points, four assists and five steals on Tuesday night, Mitchell’s recent run has been as good as any rookie in the league.
Perhaps most importantly, the streak was fun for the players who authored it. It reminded the Jazz of why the organization committed to a ball-movement-oriented offense and a defense-first culture — and why it doubled down on those values after its most visible star in Gordon Hayward departed last summer.
In the wake of Utah’s first loss since Nov. 20, the visiting locker room had a somber air. But hope remained that the rest of the NBA hasn’t seen the best of the Jazz yet.
“We obviously kind of struggled in that last quarter and kind of closing out that last quarter, but we’re still a really good team,” said Joe Ingles, who had 16 points. “I think when we play to our style and play how we want to play, we can beat any team.”