Oklahoma City • If last season’s playoff series between the Jazz and Thunder indeed ended after six games, as the historical record suggests, it wasn’t quite so apparent on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Russell Westbrook taunted Ricky Rubio for his defense. Jae Crowder and Dennis Schröder got into a dust-up. Quin Snyder exchanged genteel pleasantries with whichever referee was nearest him.
All of which proved to be tangential theatrics, however, to the epic, back-and-forth, 58-minute battle that maybe technically actually wasn’t a playoff game, but did quite a job impersonating one.
Paul George’s high-arcing floater over Rudy Gobert with 0.8 seconds remaining were his 44th and 45th points, and gave Oklahoma City a 148-147 double-overtime victory when Kyle Korver’s turnaround 3 at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
“Some of the games after All-Star break feel a little sloppy, but I thought both teams executed and played at a high level. But there were a couple little stretches that, man, if we could clean up a couple things it probably could have turned the other way,” said Korver. “This is what you ask for in the regular season — you want teams that feel like playoff games, you wanna have moments where you have to learn.”
Check, and check.
Utah was up against an MVP candidate in George, a triple-double machine in Russell Westbrook, and one of the best defenses in the league besides, and overcame almost every figurative haymaker the Thunder could throw.
The Jazz certainly had their chances along the way. They started the game with incendiary shooting — going 8 of 8 from the field, 2 of 2 from deep, and 3 of 3 from the line, and didn’t miss a shot of any kind until the 6:36 mark of the first quarter.
The perfect shooting could not last, though, and, sure enough, it didn’t. Oklahoma City’s length and athleticism — a bane to opposing offenses all season long — soon proved the same for Utah, forcing six first-quarter turnovers, and 24 overall.
And once the Thunder started drilling shots from beyond the arc, the Jazz were in some trouble, falling behind by as many as 11 points.
“No matter how hard you’re competing, you gotta be able to execute. We did at certain times, we did a great job at certain times, on both ends. And then we had some possessions where we didn’t — and those cost you,” said coach Quin Snyder. “Sometimes your margin for error’s not that great. I know we compete — I expect that from us, guys ask that of themselves; we just gotta execute better in games like this.”
Utah certainly did that in the third quarter — ramping up its efficiency on offense by dropping in 38 points, and on defense by holding OKC under 30 in a quarter for the only time all night. A runner from Donovan Mitchell at the buzzer gave Utah a 95-93 lead going into what normally would have been the final 12 minutes.
The Jazz’s strong play on both ends continued, as the team built a 10-point lead. OKC, though, finally snapped out of its stupor, immediately responding with an 8-0 run to make it a close contest.
That would prove the pattern for the remainder of the game — the Jazz going up, and the Thunder answering back.
Utah seemingly had its chances at the end of regulation, taking a pair leads in the final minute, on a driving Mitchell floater, and a Ricky Rubio 3-pointer, respectively.
Both times, the Thunder tied the game at the free-throw line, as Gobert was whistled for a pair of fouls he would later lament.
“Tonight we’re gonna think about the little plays we could have done. … The two fouls at the end of regulation — if I don’t foul, if I just make a play, if I’m just a little smarter, I think we win the game,” he said. “It’s those kind of things, those kind of details that hurt.”
From there, both teams took their shots at closing it out. Mitchell’s driving jumper was blocked, and Westbrook’s attempted game-winning jumper at the regulation horn bounced harmlessly off the rim.
In the first overtime, Westbrook finally fouled out with 1:09 left, his NBA-record streak of consecutive triple-doubles ending at 11, as he totaled a mere 43 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists. Then George’s try at the game-winner came up short, and Mitchell’s attempt similarly was off-line.
In the second OT, the Jazz were up one, and attempting to trap George, who split and slipped the double-team of Rubio and Joe Ingles, drove the lane, and tossed the ball over the outstretched arm of the hard-closing Gobert into the basket with just eight-tenths of a second remaining.
“I saw it coming. I ran at him. I ran at him and … it’s just a shot that no one can block,” Gobert said. “He saw me coming — I think it almost helped him. He saw me coming and he just threw it as high as he could — and it went in. Just a big-time play.”
Utah had one final chance of its own — inbounding the ball to Korver in the corner near the Jazz’s bench. He caught the ball, elevated, spun toward the hoop, and released the ball, all in over fluid motion, but his shot would not cooperate.
“It felt good. I couldn’t really see the basket that well — [Steven] Adams had a good contest. But it felt good, I thought there was a good chance it was going in,” he said. “All you can ask for in that situation is a good look. When you’ve got a short clock, any clean look is a good look. I just wish that one would’ve went down.”
He couldn’t match George’s heroics, but then, no one could. The Thunder star finished with 45 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.
Mitchell led the way for the Jazz with 38 points and five assists. Gobert added 26 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks. Derrick Favors contributed 24 points, 11 boards, and three blocks of his own.
And so, despite the Jazz’s third loss in as many tries against the Thunder this season, one which dropped the team to 32-26 on the season, they tried to maintain some perspective.
“You’re not happy for a loss, but this loss is kinda like, ‘Alright,’” said Mitchell. “We know what we can do against a good team, and what we’re capable of in situations like that. We stepped up. … We showed a lot of fight tonight.”