Russell Westbrook launched a 3-pointer from Steph Curry range, saw it drop through the net, and theatrically cupped his hand to his ear for the benefit of the Vivint Smart Home Arena crowd.
After the All-Star guard went viral mid-game for some profane invective directed at Jazz fans while on the bench, it was what Westbrook and Co. did on the court Monday night that ultimately made the difference.
OKC’s latest stifling defensive effort limited the Jazz to just 37 first-half points and just 36.4 percent shooting for the game, all of which yielded a 98-89 victory, and, as a result, a season sweep against their Northwest Division rivals.
The loss was Utah’s third in its last four games, and dropped the team to 37-29 on the season.
“It’s a tough night offensively — we had some open looks, we missed some stuff at the rim, and one point cut it to five in spite of that,” said coach Quin Snyder. “We hung in there, we competed. And sometimes in a game, you break through; we were close, but that didn’t happen.”
Actually, after trailing by as many as 17 at one point, Utah rallied to within 60-57 with 3:48 left in the third quarter.
However, the looks stopped going in, and OKC managed enough offense on its end to close the quarter on a 17-6 run and take a 14-point advantage into the final 12 minutes.
The process would repeat itself from there — a surge to within five or so points, and a momentum swing the other way to get the Thunder comfortably ahead again.
“They’re a good defensive team, especially in the halfcourt. I didn’t think we were getting the ball up the court fast enough to play in transition in the first half,” said forward Kyle Korver. “We were playing against their set defense, and they were aggressive, they were blitzing us, and we weren’t able to get a lot of quality shots. It kind of put us behind the 8-ball a little bit.”
Donovan Mitchell scored a game-high 25 for Utah, but shot just 8 for 22 and lamented missing a few opportunities at the rim that could have changed the flow of the game: “I just missed shots, that’s all it is. I missed shots I normally make, and that can’t happen — especially this time of year.”
Meanwhile, Royce O’Neale drained five 3-pointers en route to 17 points, and Rudy Gobert added 15 points and 12 boards. But they didn’t get a ton of help, as Joe Ingles made just 2 of 9, Korver converted 1 of 5, and Jae Crowder was 5 for 15.
Utah also had another prolific-if-inefficient night from deep, taking nearly half of its total field-goal attempts beyond the arc, but converting only 13 of 43 (30.2 percent).
The lack of makes was compounded once the defense eventually showed cracks. The second half saw the Thunder frequently capitalize on dribble penetration, as Dennis Schroder scored 24 off the bench, and Westbrook contributed a near-triple-double with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists.
“We played good defense. Then they made their run, Dennis Schroder got hot; we bounced back, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough,” said Mitchell. “One guy gets hot, and it changes the dynamic of the game.”
Granted, it is a silver lining to a costly defeat that sent the team tumbling to eighth place in the Western Conference, but the group did extol its overall defensive effort.
Paul George, an MVP candidate who had torched the Jazz in their three previous meetings, this time totaled only 14 points on 2 for 8 from the field.
On a night that featured precious few positives, they could at least cling to that.
“We really worked our tails off defensively, particularly in the halfcourt. And when we’re not able to convert, it puts more pressure on our defense,” said Snyder. “There’s a number of things we can try to improve upon, but I liked how we competed on the defensive end. And the offense will come.”