This is what a hangover feels like.
The Utah Jazz will have to regroup before returning home Friday night after blowing a 25-point lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5, losing a ripe opportunity for a closeout against their vulnerable opponent.
And yet there’s the same fundamental truth: As long as Utah wins its next game, it will get through to the Western Conference semifinals for a second straight season. And while the fourth-biggest blown lead in playoff history wasn’t surrendered through any one flaw, even in the bleary-eyed moments after the defeat, the reasons the Jazz lost were painfully clear to them.
Transition defense. Taking and making open shots. Avoiding careless fouls. Taking care of the ball. None of the issues in the 107-99 loss were ones they couldn’t have seen coming.
On one hand, the Jazz saw no need to panic. On the other hand, the fact they had letdowns in their focal points was frustrating.
“It’s stuff we’ve talked about all series,” said Joe Ingles, who scored 16 points but didn’t notch a basket in the second half. “It wasn’t really anything too different. Just the same thing, just they got going a little bit so you’ve got to pick it up and lock down. We weren’t really able to do that.”
It must be acknowledged that the Thunder, who looked fully beaten with nearly 20 minutes to go, pulled off among the most improbable comebacks in playoff history. Stat site Inpredictable.com forecasted the Jazz as having a peak win probability of 98.4 percent as they led 71-46, and Oklahoma City’s lethargic defense and unimaginative offense to that point didn’t exactly provide an omen of the forthcoming surge.
The Jazz then did something they couldn’t afford to do: They got comfortable.
“I think we just kind of relaxed a little bit,” Derrick Favors said. “We let guys get going.”
Sliding into a place of complacency may have helped lead to the things that started the Thunder rally. The Jazz struggled with turnovers from the get-go (nine in the first half), and they didn’t fix it at halftime, giving away five more in the third quarter. The turnover margin turned out to be quite stark, with the Thunder — who had 13 or more turnovers in the previous four games — limiting themselves to eight, while the Jazz had 16.
There also were issues with foul trouble. While the call that will be etched in every Jazz fan’s mind will be Rudy Gobert’s “phantom” fourth foul at the 9:23 mark of the third quarter (whistled by Kane Fitzgerald, a noted controversial official), the one before — also against Carmelo Anthony — was one of several that Gobert felt, in retrospect, he could’ve avoided.
“Had a few stupid fouls that were on me,” he said. “The fourth foul was invisible, and that is on me. I’ve got to be smarter and avoid those first three fouls. Don’t put my team in this position.”
But by then it was too late to second guess, as Favors picked up his fourth foul three minutes later. This left the Jazz to turn to Ekpe Udoh, who teammates said did what he was supposed to do — but others around him allowed their principles to break down.
The Jazz had tried for four games to take Russell Westbrook and Paul George out of transition. But both players were able to get full heads of steam in Game 5’s second half, allowing the Thunder to get nine shots at the rim in the third quarter after Favors’ fourth foul. The Jazz allowed too much space for two of the best drivers in the league, and even when Gobert and Favors subbed back in, their tenuous foul situation kept them from playing aggressively.
The guards took the blame for that one.
“Whenever they got to the basket, it is a different feeling when you do not have big fella back there,” Donovan Mitchell said. “Even so, it is hard when you put all the pressure on him. We have had success, but eventually it is not going to work, so we have to play better defense as guards ourselves, not letting Russ get to the basket and letting him shoot.”
The Jazz shrunk on offense as the Thunder took Anthony off the floor and focused on switching. The Jazz have played switches aggressively in the past, able to attack mismatches or still find open shots. Ingles felt that the Jazz did get some good looks but just didn’t make them. The Jazz didn’t make a 3-point shot in the eight minutes between the 25-point lead and the Thunder pulling even, and most of the looks were settling ones on jump shots or floaters.
The misses and turnovers fed Oklahoma City’s strength: attacking in transition. The mistakes kept snowballing.
“We can’t let that affect our defense,” Ingles said about the misses. “We haven’t really this year many times at all. But they started switching, and we got some good looks. And off our misses, they got out and ran.”
There’s something to be said for the intangible quality of superstar confidence. By the time the Jazz had regrouped and once again could field Gobert, both Westbrook and George had it. Several of the shots the duo — who combined for 79 points — made down the stretch were midrange jumpers just out of reach of Gobert. It’s the kind of shots the Jazz would prefer instead of looks at the rim, but the Thunder made them.
If the Jazz had managed to correct any one of their earlier problems, the players felt, Westbrook and George might not have been able to dig into the better versions of themselves, and the comeback might’ve been quelled. As it was, they combined to go 20 for 39 in the second half, and Westbrook outscored the Jazz 33-28 in the last 20:30 of the game.
The sunny side for Utah is that the Jazz feel they have the answers for what went wrong. The concerning part is that they couldn’t figure out those answers in the game. The Jazz couldn’t make adjustments from playing ahead for perhaps the first time all series.
And that was where the team left things Wednesday night as they exited the locker room, bound for a Game 6 that no one saw coming just an hour before. There wasn’t panic, but there was doubt. But frankly it’s not the first time the Jazz are dealing with doubt this season.
“We can sit here and be upset in our locker or we can go and watch it and fix it like we’ve done all series,” Ingles said. “After Game 1, we had no chance of winning the series at all. Everyone wrote us off after that. No one thought we were gonna make the playoffs in September, either. We’ll go out, watch the film like we have all year. Same routine like when we were up 3-1.”
THUNDER AT JAZZ
Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • 8:30 p.m. Friday
TV • TNT
Radio • 97.5 FM/1280 AM
Series record • Jazz lead 3-2
Last meeting • Oklahoma City won 107-99 (Wednesday)
About the Thunder • Russell Westbrook and Paul George combined to score 79 points in Game 5, which is the most combined points by a duo in franchise history in a playoff game. … The Thunder’s 25-point comeback is the fourth largest in NBA playoff history. … Oklahoma City’s eight turnovers in Game 5 were the first time in the series that the Thunder enjoyed fewer than 13 turnovers in a game.
About the Jazz • Donovan Mitchell is averaging a team-leading 26.6 points per game in the postseason, shooting 44 percent from the field. … The Jazz have a 96.7 defensive rating with Rudy Gobert on the floor, but a 116.1 defensive rating when he’s on the bench in the series. … The Jazz have gone 3-4 in home playoff games under Quin Snyder and have won both previous home games against the Thunder in this series.