Last night’s 113-96 loss to the Utah Jazz was more than a simple Game 4 defeat. The Oklahoma City Thunder were bullied and had their pride taken from them.
Russell Westbrook’s proclamation of a crusade against Ricky Rubio did little to help the Thunder’s chances at evening the series, rather it played into the Jazz’s hands. Westbrook’s unwise aggressiveness led to a rowdy road atmosphere that bled from the court into the stands, creating a storm through some unholy synergy. A storm Oklahoma City was not prepared for.
Three technicals, an altercation that led to an ejection of Jae Crowder, a handful of players with arms extended to either keep an opponent away or to protect a teammate from further punishment. This was not the sign of a determined team looking to match the level of physicality of their opponent, but rather a desperate team with little to do other than closing their eyes, swinging and hoping something landed.
The fouls and horseplay started early. A technical foul on Paul George for shoving Joe Ingles on an inbounds play was the early sign. Westbrook then picked up his second foul at the 4:09 mark in the first quarter, and his fourth with 1:35 left in the first half.
The Thunder’s leader, always the most overtly aggressive player when he steps on the floor, was too focused on not letting Rubio cook him again and allowed himself to fall into the Jazz’s trap. They even mentioned it in the practices leading up to Game 4 and afterwards.
“The thing I really appreciate about Russ is his competitive nature,” Donovan Mitchell said before the game. “But we aren’t really concerned with one comment.”
“It’s not about one individual matchup,” Quin Snyder said after the game. “We have a lot of respect for how good they are but we have to all be ready to play. We want our guys to be aggressive, but solid, and not lose sight of what we need to do to win the game”
Those are comments of a confident team. A team that understands the postseason should not come down to prideful 1-on-1 matchups. Utah now controls the series 3-1 with the next game in Oklahoma City Wednesday night.
All season, the Thunder have relied on simply having more talent than most teams on the floor. The combined star power of Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony was more than enough to scrape by and win most nights. At least that was the thought.
The lack of consistency Oklahoma City displayed all year can be compared to a student going through a semester without studying for the final exam. Routine comments like “I’m built for tests, I’ll make up for failing daily work by scoring big on the final,” or “I’m not worried about my grade, I’ll do well on the last test.”
That all means well if you ace the exam.
With every new comment and soundbite, the Thunder shrugged off regular season disappointments for being built for the postseason.
Right now, the Thunder are failing the multiple-choice section of the exam with the daunting essay section left. Now they have to rely on writing an essay that would make George Orwell blush.
That’s what it takes when you have to overcome a 3-1 deficit — something only 11 teams in NBA history have ever pulled off.
Oklahoma City does not need to bully Utah to a victory. They do not need their leader to be the toughest guy on the floor and value personal matchups. They simply need to play as a unit. That is the challenge Utah has presented.
The Jazz concede to the fact that the Thunder probably have the two best players on the floor in Westbrook and George. They have allowed Oklahoma City to take on individual matchups and fall in love with long distance shooting. All this while Utah has pulled the rug from under the Thunder and played as a team.
This is all not an indictment on any individual player, coach or decision. Westbrook is not the reason Oklahoma City is down 3-1. Anthony is not the reason the Thunder didn’t win more games in the regular season. The problems of this team lie deep beneath the surface.
Having said that, the Thunder can and still make this a series. All season long when you thought this team had it figured out, they would lose two games in a row. In that same vain, if you believed they were about to fall off a cliff, they would rattle off three consecutive victories. If things fall the way for Oklahoma City Wednesday night, the momentum could be enough to carry over in a Game 6 in Salt Lake City.
In order to do that, the Thunder must abandon 1-on-1 matchups, hero-ball and unwise aggression. It’s a long shot in terms of the numbers, but not ridiculous considering the talent.