On the first defensive possession of Game 4, Russell Westbrook clapped his hands as he settled into his hips — the sign that he was focused and ready for the game ahead.
For the Jazz, the intensity took slightly longer to arrive.
But after a slow start — missing shots at the rim and open looks at the 3-point line, with play slowed down by near-constant whistles — a buzz began to build. It gained volume in the second quarter when Joe Ingles finally broke a cold streak with three straight 3-pointers in a minute-and-a-half. It started to surge when Donovan Mitchell was gaining steam charging the rim to close the half.
Then, early in the third quarter, the energy crested as Ricky Rubio threw a dart to Rudy Gobert at the rim for an alley-oop jam. Rubio screamed and pumped his fist, leaping into the air — and the sea of 18,306 white-clad fans screamed with him.
It was the back-breaking moment of what might just be the back-breaking game in a contentious first-round series, with the Jazz taking Game 4, 113-96, on Monday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Since Utah lost the opening game of the match-up, the current has been steadily shifting in its direction with three straight wins.
As Mitchell took the floor for a postgame interview, the shouts of the arena became so loud, he backed away from the microphone. Then he said something that made the fans even louder: “One more.”
After the latest victory, one in which Mitchell led the Jazz with 33 points and the defense clamped down after a sluggish first quarter, it doesn’t just seem likely that the Jazz, with a 3-1 series lead, advance.
It seems inevitable.
Such was the crushing dominance with which the Jazz orchestrated the second and third quarters, when they outscored Oklahoma City 66-43. The fourth quarter wasn’t remotely competitive: The Jazz lead hovered near 20 points throughout, and the only question was the final margin — not the result.
But predictably, the Jazz didn’t issue any declarative statements themselves.
“Every game’s been physical,” said Rudy Gobert, delivering a straight-faced cliche. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get, and get ready to play basketball.”
The most-watched subplot of the night had been set since moments after Game 3 ended, when Rubio helped lead the Jazz to a win with a triple-double. Westbrook, who spent much of the night guarding him, guaranteed when it came to Rubio, he would “shut that s*** off.”
Westbrook was as good as his word early, holding Rubio to 6 points on 1 of 5 shooting in the first half. But Rubio took back something even more valuable: fouls.
Each of Westbrook’s four fouls in the first half came while he was guarding him. Rubio used Westbrook’s aggression against him, exaggerating contact when Westbrook tried to check him, or falling to the court when Westbrook tried to fend him off. After he picked up his third in the second quarter, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said he trusted Westbrook to play through it, with the guideline to not pick up any “silly fouls.”
With 1:36 left in the first half, Westbrook picked up an offensive foul against Rubio — his fourth — and was sent to the bench to the delight of the jeering crowd. When the second half began, he was mostly switched off of Rubio, who finished with 13 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds.
Westbrook had a different tone after Game 4, saying he wanted to “get past” the one-on-one match-up. In his own postgame comments, Rubio said he noticed Westbrook’s added intensity. He didn’t take it personally.
“Of course they’re trying to be more aggressive — the whole team,” Rubio said. “It’s the same thing we did in Game 2. We lost Game 1 and we tried to come out more aggressive and we wanted to play better. We’re going to try to play better in Game 5, and they’ll do the same thing.”
Meanwhile, Jazz players had warned that focusing on just one of them would come with consequences. That omen came to fruition as Mitchell cut through the Thunder defense like tissue paper, laying in baskets with the ease that usually comes to the stars of Oklahoma City. With his Game 4 performance, he became only the third rookie in the last 50 years to score 110 points or more in his first four games — following Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
Ingles missed his first four shots, then had three straight, fueling an 11-4 run to take a 58-52 lead into the half after the Jazz had trailed for much of the start.
On the other side of the scorer’s table, it was an iffy night for the Thunder’s best. Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony combined for 21-of-57 from the field. George led with 32 points, while Westbrook had 23 points and 14 rebounds. As a team, the Thunder were abysmal from beyond the arc, shooting just 5 for 26 on 3-pointers.
The most imposing the Thunder looked in the game came in altercations throughout the night that required officials to separate players. The crew doled out seven technical fouls total, and Jae Crowder was ejected. Westbrook managed to skirt out the rest of the game with just one foul in the second half, despite numerous tie-ups with Jazzmen — including one sequence where he threw Rubio to the floor.
The series continues Wednesday night in Oklahoma City. The Thunder called Game 4 a “must-win.” After the Jazz torched them Monday night, Game 5 actually will be.
“It’s the playoffs: It’s gonna be war,” Rubio said. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough, but at the same time mentally ready for that.”