The Utah Jazz had their second-round berth in their own hands with 8:34 left in the third quarter. Utah had built a 71-46 lead and the Oklahoma City Thunder were all but ready to be swaddled into the warm blanket of an unsuccessful and disappointing 2017-18 campaign. All season long, the Thunder left you wondering which team would show up on any given night. And through the first 28 minutes of Game 5 in Oklahoma City, it looked like the disappointing version of this squad had arrived.
However, foul trouble to Rudy Gobert in the third quarter changed the tide of the game. On a phantom fourth foul call, Gobert left the floor and the rest of the Jazz just had to make sure nothing disastrous happened to close out the series. With such a huge lead, the team almost couldn’t lose this game if they tried to. What nobody accounted for was a broken and dispirited Thunder team decided to try to win the game.
Over the final 20.5 minutes of Game 5, Russell Westbrook outscored the Jazz by himself. Utah managed just 28 points while Westbrook knocked in 12-of-20 from the field and 5-of-7 from deep to score 33 points. At one point, the Thunder found themselves on a 50-20 run to take the lead and completely erase a celebratory night for the Jazz. Gobert would pick up a fifth foul on a terrible decision to try to score off an offensive rebound rather than kick out to a guard and reset the offense. Everything fell apart for the Jazz while everything built up into a frenzy for the Thunder.
The next thing anybody knew, the Jazz were headed back to Salt Lake City for Game 6 with a 107-99 loss to the Thunder. Westbrook and Paul George combined for 79 points on the night. And once things broke down for the Jazz, their offense looked like a disorganized rec league team trying to figure out how to play together. Dribble penetration completely stopped and the Thunder defense never had to collapse. They just held their ground and defended contested shot after contested shot.
All of the smooth-executing offense from the first 28 minutes was long gone. Jae Crowder’s big shooting night dried up. Donovan Mitchell looked like a rookie for the first time in this series, going 5-of-16 during the final 20 minutes of the game as he tried to match Westbrook shot for shot. Except his looks didn’t come as smoothly or as in rhythm as what the reigning MVP could do. As the Thunder erased the 25-point deficit and built their final margin of victory, Utah shot just 1-of-16 from downtown.
Now as the Jazz go back to Salt Lake City looking to return to what got them this series lead, they must avoid allowing the Thunder to use this comeback as fuel for confidence. Not that Westbrook and George lack confidence in the first place, but the Jazz have to constrict the offensive flow of the Thunder once again. It has taken incendiary scoring performances from the Thunder stars in order to win two games in this series. It has taken great team basketball for the Jazz to win their three games.
Getting back to basics will end this series in Utah but the Jazz have to find themselves back in the right mental state. Here are three adjustments to make to end the series in six games:
Adjustment 1: Stop panicking on offense
When the Thunder started getting their momentum in erasing the big deficit, the Jazz stopped really running their offense. Even as sluggish and slow-paced as the Jazz can be, they removed all rhythm from what they tried to do. They walked the ball up the floor instead of looking to put the Thunder on their heels at any moment in the shot clock. Utah basically played the prevent offense trying to run out 20 minutes of clock. The real answer to fixing this is continuing to execute their offense and keep building the lead.
Some of the offense in the first half was a little surprising. Most people don’t expect a Jae Crowder explosion, but he was getting good looks generated for him. Where did those looks go for anybody in the last 20 minutes of this game? The Jazz just dribbled aimlessly on offense, stopped attacking the paint consistently, and never got the Thunder defense to bend or break. When the Thunder made their run and took the lead, the Jazz just stuck to contested perimeter shots. At a certain point, you have to run some pick-and-roll to get into the middle of the floor.
Utah has done a great job of executing their offensive system. That shouldn’t change with a lead or a deficit. They can’t just hope a rookie guard will become a superhero to defeat the MVP on the other end of the floor.
Adjustment 2: No more big man foul trouble
In a game they lost by eight points, Rudy Gobert finished with a plus-seven on the floor. Single game plus/minus can be a tricky statistic with a lot of noise, but this one was indicative of just how important Gobert is. Once he left with foul trouble in the third quarter, the Jazz defense fell apart. Westbrook comfortably stepped into 3-pointers and caught fire. He attacked the basket whenever he needed to. George did the same thing as those two combined for 54 points in the final 20 minutes of the game. Most of this happened without Gobert out there.
Gobert picked up a bad fifth foul that was as foolish on his part as his fourth foul call was absurd by the referee. But it showed a lack of composure on Gobert’s part to commit that fifth foul. Once he returned to the floor in the fourth quarter, it took him a while to get comfortable on defense. Immediately, he allowed an alley-oop to Steven Adams. He found himself stuck in-between defensive decisions we rarely see him hesitant to make. All of this stemmed from foul trouble that could have mostly been avoided.
Derrick Favors was on the floor for much of that run, but his foul trouble also didn’t help things. We saw the Thunder reap the benefits of what the Jazz saw for a couple games when Adams found himself on the bench with too many fouls. In those games, the Jazz feasted on the Thunder until Adams came back in the game. Then they feasted some more because Adams couldn’t be himself as he had to play carefully. Same thing happened to Gobert in Game 5. Thunder will try to replicate this in Game 6 to keep their series alive and Gobert can’t fall into this trap — regardless of the calls made against him.
Adjustment 3: Take care of the ball
17 team turnovers and a 15.5 percent turnover rate is simply too high for the Jazz to feel good about securing a road playoff victory. Most of the turnovers came from the starting unit and the sloppiness just kept Oklahoma City from continually feeling the pressure to make that comeback happen. Once the Thunder were in a rhythm, several miscues by the Jazz kept fueling that fire.
Utah has struggled with high turnover rates for much of the season. Their offense has so much motion, hand-offs, and passing that it’s bound to create more opportunities for turning the ball over. But another part of that is they can counter by just being stronger with the ball and absorbing contact. They have to play through contact instead of letting the ball fly and hoping a whistle comes. By being the aggressor, they’ll likely start getting those whistles in their favor.
In Game 6, the key number will be 13. If the Jazz can keep it to 13 turnovers or fewer, they’ll close out Game 6 with more ease than they should. Jazz were 24-12 this season when committing 13 turnovers or fewer. That will limit the pace for the Thunder and take away transition opportunities.
Jazz still control this series, but they also find themselves in a must-win Game 6. It’s all in their hands.