OKC went into a frenzied Utah arena and couldn’t overcome an inconsistent shooting night from its big three, eventually falling to the Ricky Rubio–led Jazz, 115-102. Utah gained a 2-1 edge in the series.
Bad Russ Kills the Thunder
It was bound to happen. After two Russell Westbrook performances on par with much of his regular season, the Thunder’s main attraction scored 14 points on a terrible 5-of-17 shooting from the field and coughed up eight turnovers. For some context: The Thunder lost the ball 17 times, and the Jazz took advantage, scoring a whopping 33 points off those turnovers.
Billy Donovan’s decision to go small early in the game seemed to have thrown the staunch Utah defense and their anchor Rudy Gobert for a loop. But playing Gobert out onto the perimeter only works if players like Patrick Patterson or Jerami Grant can serve as credible outside shooting threats. The two attempted only three 3-pointers total and finished with 15 combined points. Gobert had 18 of his own. Quin Snyder didn’t bite on the Thunder’s adjustment. Gobert, in turn, rewarded Snyder for his faith, deterring everything at the rim, and forcing Russ into both bad passes that led to turnovers and cringeworthy midrange jumpers. When switched onto Russ, sometimes Gobert didn’t even have to do much but watch Russ step into a bad shot instead of trying to blow past him. It was exactly what Utah wanted.
The rest of the Thunder offense never found a rhythm with all of their best players on the court at the same time. Carmelo Anthony had an efficient first half, but faded hard in the second, finishing with only 14 points. George was Melo in reverse: quiet for much of the game before scoring 14 points in the second half. But it wasn’t enough—not with Westbrook struggling so mightily.
The Jazz put the Thunder on the ropes in the fourth. Westbrook looked lifeless and began playing passively (Of note: Westbrook’s been outscored by Donovan Mitchell 23-3 in the fourth during games 2 and 3). Melo was bricking shots like he needed eyeglasses, and George had run out of both will and gas. A near-blowout ensued.
Ricky Rubio Has His Playoff Moment
It’s fitting that Ricky Rubio has the best game of his NBA career (in the playoffs, no less) on the same night the Minnesota Timberwolves notched their first postseason win in 14 years. On Saturday night in Utah, Rubio turned into the best offensive player on the floor in the most important game of his career:
The 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist night took off in the second quarter when Rubio fueled a 22-4 Jazz run, scoring 14 of the Jazz’s 15 points during a particular stretch. Rubio, much like the Jazz as a whole, fed off the raucous Utah crowd. He finished the half with 19 as the only player in double digits on his own team.
In the second half, Rubio picked his spots; he’s not exactly built to play hero ball. Still, he used the extra defensive attention on him to set up the likes of Gobert and Joe Ingles (who finished with 21 points), and even Donovan Mitchell, who still had his customary 22-point game, but didn’t need to have the kind of offensive performance he had in Game 2. Not while Rubio had the Midas touch and was doing stuff like this:
Rubio’s offensive game has made big strides in Utah’s system. He averaged 13 points per game this season, two more than he did in his last year with Minnesota, and had four games of 30 points or more. It was a notable deviation from the assist-hungry Rubio identity that he’d carved out for himself all his life. Saturday was more likely a one-off than a preview of what’s to come, but it was an impressive display of both Rubio’s growth as an offensive player and how the Jazz can elevate any one of their players on a given night. Westbrook promised it wouldn’t happen again, though:
Westbrook on Rubio getting hot: "I'm gonna shut that s*** off next game, though. I guarantee that."— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 22, 2018
Steven Adams Is Even More Important Than You Think
While the Thunder are paced by Russ and live off ancillary offense from George and Melo, Game 3 was yet another example of how integral Steven Adams is to the team. In Game 1, he played for 37 minutes and the Thunder won. In Game 2, he fouled out and played only 22 minutes. The Thunder lost.
Foul trouble sent Adams to the bench Saturday again; he finished with 26 minutes and only two rebounds and eight points, yet he was the only Thunder starter who didn’t have a double-digit negative plus-minus on the night. His absence also allowed Gobert’s impact on the game to reach an even higher level. OKC was outrebounded by 15 boards, and allowed 40 points in the paint to the Jazz. Small sample size aside, it’s not a reach to say that Adams needs to be on the floor for the Thunder to play their best. And for Utah, aiming to get Adams into early foul trouble in Game 4 and beyond could bode well for its ability to win the series.