SALT LAKE CITY — All was the same between the Jazz and Thunder, Monday at Vivint Arena, except everything that counts.
Eleven months after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs, it’s the Jazz that are backpedaling. The latest loss, a 98-89 outcome, wrapped up the season series in a 4-0 Thunder sweep.
These things happen when you tread water in the NBA.
OKC got considerably better since last spring and Utah got stuck. Technically, the Jazz are one game better than last year’s record, with 16 games remaining. They’re playing without injured Ricky Rubio, who last season played his best basketball. There is something to be said about standing pat in the offseason, especially when a team has young stars and a bright future.
But it’s hard to know what the neighbors are doing.
They might just move to a fancier neighborhood.
Monday it wasn’t Russell Westbrook or Paul George who took down the Jazz. It was offseason acquisition Dennis Schroder, who in the Thunder’s previous five games couldn’t find the rim with a magnet. He buried the Jazz with 24 points off the bench.
As the Jazz dragged back into the locker room after trailing by as many as 17 points — having now lost three of their last four games overall — it seemed less likely they’ll face OKC in the first round of the playoffs as they did last year. While the Jazz stayed practically static, the Thunder dispatched Carmelo Anthony (a leap forward all by itself), traded for Schroder and Abdel Nader and added Nerlens Noel as a free agent.
Noel had five points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.
Schroder had the Jazz under his thumb.
The return of previously injured Dante Exum didn’t much help Utah; he was 0-5 shooting. Although he, Royce O’Neale and Donovan Mitchell guarded the irrepressible Westbrook, limiting him to 23 points — and while Paul George had a substandard 14-point night — that was the point.
Oklahoma City beat the Jazz handily without either star playing exceptionally.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s game-high 25 points came with some baggage of its own: 8-for-22 shooting.
While it seemed lately that the two smaller market teams would end up facing one another in a 3- vs. 6-seed pairing, that prospect is dimming. The loss dropped Utah into eighth place. There’s little danger they’ll miss the playoffs, but they could end up playing Golden State in the first round.
It took all of two minutes to turn the game into, well, a continuation. Media were asking OKC coach Billy Donovan beforehand about the burgeoning “rivalry.”
“Feud” or “death wish” is more like it.
Aside from the standard physicality — including a wild scramble for a loose ball that littered the floor with bodies — a Jazz fan was escorted out of the arena after exchanging taunts with — who else? — Westbrook.
From the start, the Vivint Arena crowd booed every time Westbrook touched the ball.
After Oklahoma City lost in the first round against the Jazz last spring, he accused Utah fans of classless taunts, calling them “disrespectful and vulgar.”
Because, you know, he’s never been vulgar or disrespectful himself.
He thrives on this stuff.
This year he didn’t particularly impress against the Jazz. He was just 4-for-18 shooting in one game against Utah, 3-17 in another. He was 9-19 on Monday.
But then there are the nights like his 43 points in an overtime win.4 comments on this story
Oklahoma City is one of only four teams the Jazz haven’t defeated this year. The Thunder dominated the first meeting, but the follow-up was a single-point loss at Vivint Arena and a double-overtime loss in February. Yet the games have all had the feel of the playoffs. Last year’s postseason pairing was a brisk wake-up for the Thunder.
So they did something about it.
“I think the competitive part, and some of the chippiness, is just a reflection of both teams’ competitive nature and both teams wanting to win,” Thunder coach Billy Donvoan said.
There was no lack of competitiveness, but the style fell somewhere between a pie fight and a demolition derby.
The mood, though, had the feel of a checkmate.