OKLAHOMA CITY — Impressive as the postseason has been for the Jazz, improbable as their rise, Wednesday’s 107-99 Game 5 playoff loss to Oklahoma City was a lesson for the ages.
They’re not good enough to win on three-quarter speed, i.e. playing three quarters of a game.
They might have a center that can swat birds from the sky, a guard that’s laying siege to the rookie record books, and a coach who is too smart for Mensa. But it’s still a couple of players shy of world domination.
A team that can’t afford to watch the other team’s stars being stars.
So back they go to Salt Lake for Game 6 on Friday, humbled.
Isn’t this where Rudy Gobert patiently says, “We’ll be fine”?
If not, they may have to take back all the good things the national media have been saying about the Jazz. For instance, ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who was moved to tweet that “Utah is starting to make fans ask who’s really the superteam in this series.”
Russell Westbrook must have been watching. He scored 45 points Wednesday, while fellow superstar Paul George added 34, as the Thunder overcame a 25-point second-half deficit.
“Well, I think a 25-, 20-point lead in the NBA is not safe ” coach Quin Snyder said.
It looked suspiciously like Game 1 — OKC’s only other win — when George scored 36 and Westbrook 29.
Snyder and his players have been doing their best this week to warn against a case of the comfortables. That shouldn’t be a problem now. Eleven teams have overcome 3-1 deficits in the playoffs, including Golden State over Oklahoma City in 2016. In Salt Lake, things could get personal. They sure did the last time they met in Salt Lake. There were seven technicals. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was caught on TV razzing Westbrook about foul troubles.
Talk about a political snafu.
Westbrook came back and won the day on Wednesday.
The team effort the Jazz displayed earlier in the series shifted when things got tight in Game 5. Rookie Donovan Mitchell tried to do too much alone after OKC had erased the 25-point Jazz lead. He still finished with 23 points, but by then he was under heavy guard, ending up 9-of-22 shooting.
As a team, the Jazz shot just 41 percent and doubled the Thunder in turnovers (16-8).
But it was the third-quarter meltdown that did them in. They made just 7 of 22 field-goal attempts, settling for jump shots early in the offense, while the Thunder made 11 of 19 shots in the same span. Westbrook had 20 points in the quarter, George 12.
Meanwhile, the Jazz had five turnovers.
Still, the Jazz aren’t in deep trouble unless they lose in Salt Lake, sending the series back to Oklahoma for Game 7.
The outcome is still in their hands.
And in their heads.
The Jazz picked up another postseason pointer in the loss. They now know nothing is certain in the playoffs except high ticket prices.
It was a sloppy start for everyone. The teams made just three of their first 14 shots. It looked like the game might end in a baseball score. It wasn’t for lack of effort, just lack of rhythm. But Jae Crowder found his, scoring 15 points in the first quarter, as the Jazz led 34-29. Staying in character, the Jazz got their points from a variety of places in building their lead to 25 in the mid-third quarter.
Like Baskin-Robbins, they brought 31 flavors.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan picked up a technical with 11 seconds left in the half.
In the early second half, Mitchell drove the lane, throwing up a leaning, improbable left-handed scoop shot that went in. Westbrook went inside to challenge Gobert. Poor decision. Gobert swatted it into 1980.
OKC was looking for the storm cellar.
But thanks to two superstars and one quarter, the series continues.
“Once tomorrow starts, like, this is over with,” said Donovan.
The Jazz couldn’t be happier with that.