SALT LAKE CITY — The highly anticipated Russell Westbrook vs. Ricky Rubio smackdown came off Monday at Vivint Arena with relatively few fireworks. A bit of bumping, a little Westbarking, but that was about it.
The Jazz won it with room to spare, 113-96.
Westbrook’s promise of shutting down Rubio, following the Jazz guard’s triple-double last Saturday, didn’t totally happen, but it actually didn’t much matter.
A triple-double from their point guard isn’t something the Jazz plan on.
Either way, Westbrook’s comments following Saturday’s game added spice to a competitive but unremarkable playoff series.
The pregame buzz again proved that controversy — contrived or real — is alive and well in the NBA. Records fall, uniform colors change, legends pass, but the time-honored tradition of hyper-drama lives in perpetuity.
During Monday’s Game 4 of the playoffs between the Jazz and Oklahoma City, all eyes were on Westbrook, because he mentioned something that should be on any player’s to-do list: stop an opponent that is thriving.
After Saturday’s game he promised to end Rubio’s run of postseason success. The Jazz guard’s 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist night was more than Westbrook could, well, brook.
“I’ma shut that (expletive) off next game, though. Guarantee that,” he said.
This sent the media into launch protocol.
He neither shut Rubio down nor let him run wild.
Westbrook got a double-double, Rubio got a nice mix of everything.
Guarantees usually ensure nothing except a slew of publicity.
Tame as the Jazz franchise has historically been, it nearly always finds a way to get caught up in these things. In last year’s first round, the Clippers' Chris Paul called Jazz fans “homers.” Never mind that any self-respecting fan should be a homer. Jazz fans took it as an insult. In the second round, several Warriors pointed out Salt Lake is boring. That refrain has been circulating since Lake Bonneville existed.
There were other years, with other controversies, such as Dennis Rodman saying the Mormons messed up his karma; Bison Dele saying Salt Lake smelled like brine shrimp; Derek Fisher returning as a Laker and getting verbally brutalized by Jazz fans; Golden State’s Stephen Jackson claiming racial taunts; Jerry Sloan making Andrei Kirilenko cry during a practice; Phil Jackson calling the Jazz dirty; a Denver columnist saying the Jazz have no heart.
Business as usual in the postseason.
So Monday’s big storyline was whether Westbrook would make good on his promise to derail Rubio. The first hint of trouble — a mild one — came in the first quarter when Westbrook ran over Rubio and was called for an away-from-the-play foul. Nobody threw a punch. In an earlier moment Westbrook actually held teammates back from mixing it up with the Jazz.
The game went as it logically should have. Rubio wasn’t afire as a scorer. Westbrook was prolific but inefficient. Donovan Mitchell starred and everybody contributed.
Rubio didn’t beat Westbrook, the Jazz beat the Thunder.
Maybe the most notable play between them was Rubio taking a charge late in the first half — Westbrook’s fourth foul.
That was when Joe Ingles landed three straight 3s.
Not much controversy there.
Turned out it was about basketball after all.
“Lots of times different guys will have the ball,” coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s who we are.”
Rubio smiled when asked at morning shootaround if Westbrook would shut him down.
“I knew it was coming,” he said. “Of course, I mean, he makes a big deal. I mean, of course, they lost Games 2 and 3, they’re gonna come ready — not just him. We expect the whole team to come ready.”
The readiness was all the Jazz’s.
Rubio went on to mildly chide the media for getting the story wrong. “You’re taking this too personal. I mean, of course he wants to play better. I want to play better too.”
It’s just that not everyone promises they will.
But the biggest drama of the night was in garbage time when Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton got a double-technical, and later when Westbrook and Jae Crowder began shoving, causing others to jump in. Westbrook was charged with a foul and Crowder ejected. Moments later, Westbrook tossed Rubio to the floor for a rebound and Derrik Favors put a hard foul on Westbrook.
Westbrook wasn’t off base to put himself out there after Rubio’s Saturday game. He fuels himself on emotion. He stuck closer in Game 4, not allowing many open Rubio shots the way he previously did. Rubio deserves credit for not overreacting or overreaching.
It’s not that Westbrook’s prediction wasn’t newsworthy.
It’s just that the news doesn’t always have all that much to do with the story.