If the Jazz are unfamiliar with the song, “With Every Wish There Comes a Curse,” they’ll know its verses well within a couple of weeks.
They wanted a playoff berth in the worst way, they fought for it and earned it, and now if they are not careful, it could punch them in the mouth and laugh at their pain.
Some observers said throughout the regular season that the Oklahoma City Thunder had underachieved. Actually, the jury on them was split, some believing the roster was piecemeal, others embracing the All-Star vibe. They added Paul George to a lineup that already included Russell Westbrook, and that perched them on a precipice of curious expectation that was the opposite of what surrounded the Jazz.
The Thunder were projected to be imperfect, perhaps, but dangerous. With that kind of core, even if George was only a temporary addition, it could be difficult to contain. The further new complement of Carmelo Anthony was more an odd bit of intrigue than it was any kind of tomahawk dunk that the Thunder would win the West.
They did not win the West. They finished with the same record as the Jazz at 48-34. The fact that they had beaten the Jazz three out of four times during the regular season gave OKC the fourth seed — along with home-court advantage — against the Jazz’s fifth spot.
The team now carrying great/split expectations faces a team that, at season’s start, folks felt sorry for. There were no expectations burdening the Jazz. And yet they emerged as a defensive power, a respectable foe. Whether any of that matters now is an open-ended deal.
In some corners, the Thunder are a favorite in this series. There is that.
But the more important issue is how these teams match up.
You know the Jazz, and if you do, you also know that they are vulnerable — like most teams are — to an explosive scoring guard like Westbrook. Having just suffered through a regular-season-ending loss to Portland, a defeat put upon the Jazz in significant measure by a guard named Dame, they are more than aware of the challenge Westbrook presents.
Who’s going to stop him?
As good as the Jazz have been at the defensive end, leading the league in defensive rating over the final months of the season, consistently slowing Westbrook isn’t something they are well equipped to do.
If Rudy Gobert owns the paint and regularly confronts Westbrook on his drives, that will be fun to watch.
The Jazz managed to baffle Westbrook in the season’s first week in a nine-point win, holding the guard to just six points on 2-for-11 shooting, although he did get nine assists and 13 rebounds. The Jazz would take that all series long.
Westbrook went for 34, 14 and 12, and OKC won, but it was a close, six-point margin in the second matchup.
The Jazz were crushed in the third, losing by 28 points, with Westbrook getting 24 points, seven assists and 10 boards, and those totals would have risen had he not played only limited minutes.
The fourth game was another Thunder blowout in which Westbrook scored 27 points, hauled 10 rebounds and dished 10 assists.
On a more positive note, the Jazz played all of those games before January, when they became who they really turned out to be this season. The team that lost the season series to the Thunder never would have qualified for the playoffs. The one they put on the floor for the last three months is considerably more formidable.
Still, solutions to the Westbrook problem are in short supply.
The Jazz will throw combinations of Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum at him and see where that takes them. If Westbrook chooses to challenge Gobert, whoever wins that meeting, as mentioned, will be key.
The difficulty in playing OKC, though, goes beyond Russ.
George is an offensive talent who also can guard Mitchell, if need be. And Steven Adams is a big, physical force who will lean on Gobert and conceivably cause him more troubles than most other centers. Anthony is more than a mere add-on, scoring 15 points a game. The absence to injury of Andre Roberson is unkind for the Thunder, helpful for the Jazz.
A vital battle to watch will be Oklahoma City’s ability to offensive rebound — especially Adams vs. the Jazz’s ability to preclude it. Second-chance points can tear the heart out of a team, and the Jazz are well-aware.
You can expect an intense series to unfold here, maybe the most intense of any of the first-round matchups. There will be bodies flying around, bumping into one another, which will lead to some woofing and complaining and chest-thumping, if not outright fighting.
Mitchell’s and Rubio’s introduction to the NBA playoffs will be a full-bodied affair then. If the Jazz find a way to advance, it will be with bruises as badges of honor.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.