It all adds up. The turnovers, the second chance points, the low efficiency shot attempts, missed free throws and everything in between. From the first minute to the 48th in these NBA playoffs, it’s the team that capitalizes on those little things and understands how they pile up that typically comes away victorious.
That’s how it shook out in Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday night, as the Thunder fell 102-95 to the Utah Jazz in Game 2 of this Western Conference battle, tying up the series at 1-1 heading into Games 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City.
Those ever-important breaks, and the controllable aspects of the game, slipped out of the Thunder’s grasp from the opening seconds, when the Jazz ripped off a 9-0 lead to start the game, and forced a time out by Head Coach Billy Donovan after just 2:06 of playing time due to 3 turnovers. The Thunder rallied out of the break, however, equalizing the Jazz spurt with a 9-0 burst of its own. From there, it was on. A back-and-forth battle of sustained runs ensued, and though the Jazz made the last, crucial one there was a ton of drama in the build-up.
“The entire game we could have executed better,” Donovan said. “The first half we got stagnant offensively. Some of that had to do with the turnovers. We were never in a rhythm or a flow. There was no momentum.”
By the time the first quarter ended, the Thunder trailed by just 1 point, but had already given up 20 points in the paint, allowed 6 offensive rebounds (including 5 to the imposing Derrick Favors) and turned the ball over 8 times. The score didn’t reflect a massive deficit, but the opportunity cost to the Thunder of not having a solid lead at that point proved to be pivotal.
“Obviously against a team where we don’t want to give up opportunities and allow them to get easy baskets, we gotta be better in that category,” said forward Paul George.
When Utah put together a 14-3 run midway through the second quarter to extend its lead to 7, the Thunder was put in a hole it had to dig out of in the third quarter. The pace was all wrong for the Thunder, much too slow and to Utah’s liking. The Jazz had the Thunder under pressure, building back up to that previously attained 9-point lead, at 67-58 midway through the third quarter.
After getting a stop, Russell Westbrook saw a soft defensive presence in front of him and took a dribble up three-pointer that dropped straight through the net, setting off a shockwave. The much-needed make was followed up by a bit of fortune, as Ricky Rubio (who made a surprising 5 three-pointers in the game) was called for an 8-second count bringing the ball up the court.
George then attacked and made a tough floater before Westbrook grabbed his own miss and found Carmelo Anthony for a second chance three-pointer. Suddenly, that Utah lead was just one point, and after a timeout, the Thunder rattled off another 11 points, getting points from all five men on the floor during its 19-0 run to take a 10-point lead at 77-67 with just 54.4 seconds left in the period.
Donovan’s club was tantalizingly close to taking a firm hold of the game. A double-digit lead heading into the fourth quarter in front of a wonderful crowd would have been tough for Utah to overcome. But in that final minute of the third frame, Utah scored 7 points and allowed just 2 to make it a 5-point game. That little spurt changed the momentum completely.
“No question, that’s a very big deal. You have to close out the quarters, try not to give them momentum going into the next quarter and giving them confidence,” said point guard Raymond Felton. “We gotta do a better job with that.”
In this game of runs, the Jazz had withstood the Thunder’s best punch, and after staggering for five scoreless minutes, regrouped and swung back. The Jazz ended up putting together an 18-3 scoring run that spanned the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters, taking a 5-point lead with 8:44 to go.
The Thunder scratched back to tie it at 89, but Utah kept getting huge jump shots from Rubio on the perimeter, and a litany of free throw attempts. The backbreakers came when the Thunder cut the Jazz lead down to just two at 95-93 with 2:23 to go. Utah’s rookie dynamo Donovan Mitchell drove in from the wing and was blocked by Westbrook at the rim, but Anthony was called for a phantom foul on the drive, which resulted in two free throws.
At the time the Thunder had been building momentum, and the foul and free throws created a killer potential 4-or-5-point swing. It didn’t help that in the fourth quarter, the Thunder’s dynamic scoring options went cold. It had been a balanced, not terribly efficient night to begin with, as the Thunder attempted 19 non-paint two’s and shot just 40 percent for the game. But in the fourth quarter, Westbrook, George and Anthony combined to shoot 0-for-14 from the field, a very unlikely event to be repeated.
“We worked so hard in the third quarter to get the lead back and played so well to get back,” Anthony said. “Fourth quarter, we just didn’t shoot the ball well.”
“They sustained it throughout the fourth quarter,” Anthony continued. “Us not making shots in the fourth quarter played into their hands but they did a good job of making plays, offensive rebounds, 50-50 basketballs out there, the loose balls out there. They beat us to the punch at the little things tonight and as a result they ran away with the game.”
As the Thunder tried to claw back, three-pointers from George, Anthony and Jerami Grant all missed, preventing any chance of an improbably last-minute comeback. Coming in, everyone in the Thunder locker room knew this Jazz team was serious, and expected adversity in the series. Now it’s come, and the Thunder is headed west, intent on ripping home court advantage right back.
“They made adjustments from Game 1. Now it’s our turn to make some adjustments and figure out what we’re going to do,” Anthony said.