OKLAHOMA CITY — All the evidence needed to show how far Oklahoma City must come in order to eliminate the Jazz can be summed up thusly: Only 11 teams have overcome 3-1 deficits.
OKC isn’t one of them.
But it is one that gave up a 3-1 lead.
In 2016, the Thunder had Golden State on the run, one win away from the NBA Finals, yet lost. If that’s not a harbinger, neither is the fact that Russell Westbrook gained nothing by promising to shut down Ricky Rubio.
That’s the Thunder in a nutshell: focusing on individual matchups instead of team effort.
The Jazz have a throttlehold on this series and nothing indicates that will change. The Jazz can wrap it up Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Thunder players sounded as disconnected off the court as they were on following Monday’s 113-96 loss. When the team’s star gallery of Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George took the interview podium, the message was strange.
“At this point, I think us three, this is what we want,” George said.
They want the summer off?
“Not necessarily being in this position,” George continued, attempting to explain, “but at this point, give it everything we got.”
What they’ve got is an expensive (third highest in the NBA), erratic team that is getting schooled by a bunch of playoff trainees.
The reason for this lopsided series is that it’s the Jazz, not the Thunder, acting like they’ve been there many times. The current iteration basically has just one year’s playoff experience (2017). Donovan Mitchell wasn’t even around for that. His playoff experience amounts to what he’s seen on TV.
He was 10 the last time the Jazz made a deep playoff run.
Yet here the Jazz are, in full Steve McQueen mode. Twice in the last nine months, Rudy Gobert has said the Jazz would be OK, despite obstacles.
“Big fella said we’d be fine and I think we showed that we’ll be fine,” Mitchell said.
For the first time since Stockton and Malone, two Jazz stars are owning Salt Lake as their home, and not apologizing. Small-market team? No nightlife? No beach?
Get them some fry sauce and shut up already.
In a Monday piece written by Gobert for The Players’ Tribune, he addressed fan support, saying, “Any team that wants a piece of us is gonna have to come to Salt Lake City and deal with all 19,911 of you. Maybe nobody else believes in us, but that’s their problem.”
Never mind the remodeled arena holds only 18,306.
The noise level makes it seem like there are at least 35,000 in the house.
So it’s the Jazz that have been acting like they’ve been there before, feisty but patient. Their games have been particularly unselfish, six players in double figures on Monday. Oklahoma City had just 10 assists in Game 4; Utah 21.
Meanwhile, the Thunder, who have been to the playoffs eight of the last nine years — and made the conference finals four times — are the ones appearing discombobulated.
Naturally, Jazz players are trading compliments. Mitchell is referring to Gobert as “the Defensive Player of the Year,” even as he himself sets rookie records. Mitchell finished Monday’s game pumping his arms, egging the crowd on. His on-court postgame interview triggered a standing ovation.
Derrick Favors, a pending free agent, has said he hopes to remain in Utah — something Gordon Hayward never did. Favors arrived in Utah a tongue-tied rookie in a strange town. Now he’s a smooth senior statesman with a game to match.
After Monday’s contest, Favors looked relaxed as media crowded around his locker. Someone pointed out that the pushing and woofing in Game 4 — which included seven technicals and an ejection — didn’t seem to bother the Jazz.
“As long as you don’t hurt yourself and don’t do anything crazy, (you’ve) just got to keep your composure and just get on to the next play sometimes,” Favors said.
Getting on to the next series is right around the corner.