HOUSTON — With the Jazz opening their conference semifinal series against Houston on Sunday, it brings a new challenge — and it’s not only James Harden and Co.
It’s what comes every year in the playoffs.
Someone on the Rockets will trash Salt Lake City. Someone will accuse Jazz fans of being rude, crude or ignorant.
It wouldn’t be the postseason if somebody didn’t lob a grenade.
If you can’t beat 'em, slander 'em.
When it comes to the Jazz-Rockets, both might happen. The stakes get high and the rhetoric higher as the playoffs roll along.
This year’s first-round series between the Jazz and Thunder was missing something that usually occurs. Nobody complained loudly about Salt Lake having no nightlife. Maybe that’s because Oklahoma City has nothing to do. But that doesn’t mean the Thunder left quietly. Superstar Russell Westbrook, who of course never says anything controversial, used the postgame podium to take on Jazz fans.
"I don't confront fans, fans confront me," Westbrook said. "Here in Utah, man, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here with these fans. It's truly disrespectful. Talk about your families, your kids. It's just a disrespect to the game and I think it's something that needs to be brought up.
"I'm tired of just going out and playing and letting fans say what the hell they want to say. I'm not with that. If I was on the street, they wouldn't just come up to me and say anything crazy, because I don't play that (expletive)."
Video on social media did show Westbrook exchanging words with at least two fans during the evening. But Westbrook conveniently brought it up after being eliminated from the playoffs.
From what I could tell, fans were badgering Westbrook. Whether they were being as rude as he said is unclear. Regardless, it’s safe to say the playoffs bring out the worst in certain people, both on the court and in the seats.
Donovan Mitchell said after the game, “I wouldn’t say it's anything crazy, to be honest. In my two years in college I heard crazy things too. But as far as the game, I wouldn’t say specifically here that it didn’t happen. It happens everywhere. I heard it last game (in Oklahoma) — that’s just part of the game that makes it fun sometimes it does go overboard. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, you’ve just got to be able to maintain your composure.”
Can we move on?
That big-market vs. small-market and the taunting-fans-vs.-angry-player narrative isn’t going away. Something will come up in the Rockets-Jazz series, as well.
Whether Jazz fans are worse than elsewhere is subjective. Mitchell exchanged taunts with Oklahoma City fans after Game 5, saying, “See y’all next year.”
“I don’t really think it’s just a Utah thing,” he said.
I don’t either. I think it’s a fan thing. And a psychological edge thing. And a rabbit-eared player thing. But some national media seem to be buying into stereotypes. One national writer said in a private conversation last year that Jazz fans were the worst in the league. Former Golden State forward Stephen Jackson accused Jazz fans of employing racial taunts.
Longtime lower bowl ticket-holder John Sudbury, last year, said, “I call that a lie.”
Jazz color analyst Ron Boone said he had never heard racial taunts from Jazz fans.
Westbrook didn’t make racial accusations Friday. He simply said Jazz fans crossed the line. I’m sure they did. I’m also sure Westbrook draws energy from his anger.
The NBA code of conduct prohibits “disruptive behavior, including foul or abusive language or obscene gestures” at risk of ejection. If the taunts were as bad as Westbrook said, why wasn’t someone tossed?
Maybe Westbrook is wondering the same.
Either way, look for someone on the Rockets to call Salt Lake boring, or worse. And look for a few Jazz fans to cross the line — or be accused of it by Houston players.
Business as usual in the postseason.
Rodney King once uttered the famous words “Can’t we all just get along?”
Obviously he wasn’t a basketball fan.