SALT LAKE CITY -- The ball bounced high off the back of the rim after Joe Ingles launched a wing 3-pointer in the closing moments of the third quarter. Batted around a time or two, Ricky Rubio finally tracked it down near midcourt and turned to glance at the clock. Without much time, he pulled one leg up and fired on a 28-footer runner at the buzzer.
It was that kind of night for Rubio. Against the NBA's triple-double king, it was Rubio who hit the magical trio of round numbers -- 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists -- outplaying Russell Westbrook, who had a strangely uncharacteristic off night (14 points on 5-of-17 shooting with eight turnovers) as the Utah Jazz took Game 3 over the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-102 to go up 2-1 in the series.
The Jazz have built a roster focused around team and togetherness with the mindset that any player can lift the group at any moment. With the way rookie Donovan Mitchell has exploded on his way to superstardom, it seemed like maybe the Jazz were outgrowing that. But with their suffocating defense always present, and with Mitchell hitting some foul-trouble issues, it was Rubio who answered the call.
The critical moments of Rubio's career night came in the second quarter when the Thunder were taking control on both ends, going up by 12 and flashing some dominance on both sides of the ball. Not much was really happening for Utah, and it wasn't as if a light bulb clicked on over Rubio's absolutely sensational samurai ponytail -- it was more a reluctant takeover, with him accepting the open, midrange jumpers the Thunder presented and riding the wave of momentum from there.
"I think the first two games, I wasn't being effective in the midrange area," Rubio said. "It's been something I've been working on. I felt good about, but it wasn't going in; but tonight, it felt good seeing the first couple go in. It's just the way we played. We got open shots, and it's easy to make shots when you are open."
It left multiple moments throughout the night for an outrageously charged-up home crowd -- spread out in a glorious pattern of yellow, red and orange -- to chant, "Ru-bi-o!" All that was missing was him crowing back at Peter Pan.
The Thunder started much better than in Games 1 and 2, with Billy Donovan making a clever chess move in the first quarter by subbing Patrick Patterson in early for Steven Adams. It was an adjustment with a clear objective of spacing the floor and pulling Rudy Gobert out of the paint.
Westbrook got downhill for a layup -- something he hasn't done much in the series -- right away, and then Patterson knocked back-to-back open 3s when Gobert cheated back to the paint. The other payoff was it allowed Adams to sub back in to play against Utah's second unit and match up with Derrick Favors' minutes at center (Favors killed OKC on the glass in Game 2). The Thunder went on an 18-2 run and really seemed to have something going.
It all looked pretty good and smart, and then Rubio happened. With 19 in the first half, he sparked a 20-4 run to make up a double-digit deficit. Rubio has quietly played quality offensive basketball the past couple months of the season; the Thunder weren't abandoning him -- Rubio was just making shots. And it's not a great sign for OKC if Rubio is going to get the better of Westbrook, especially to that degree.
"He made some shots," Westbrook said of Rubio. "Too comfortable. But I'm gonna shut that s--- off next game, though. Guarantee that."
Westbrook has had strange nights before, but he was noticeably passive at moments and indecisive in the paint. The Jazz have used a smart scheme to try to confuse him, deploying stunts and drops from Gobert while trying to eliminate everything at the rim. It has left Westbrook over-reading help and leaving his feet to get caught in midair with no great safety valve available. So many of Westbrook's turnovers were on him for making a bad initial decision but were engineered by the Jazz's spot-on rotations. Westbrook scored two points in the fourth quarter of Game 2; he didn't even attempt a shot in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
"Just gotta take what's given," Westbrook said. "I'm getting myself jumping in the air trying to look back to find P [Paul George] and Melo [Carmelo Anthony] and other guys on the floor. I've got to stay in attack mode and read my first option and go with that."
Westbrook can dominate games in dynamic ways, but he has avoided trying to put his trademark stamp on one in this series. He has deferred often, trying to make the "right" basketball plays and swing to open scorers in space. But if the Thunder are going to bounce back, it's going to be because Russell Westbrook started playing like Russell Westbrook again.
"Just trying to make him think," Gobert said of Westbrook. "Everyone knows I protect the rim, and I know that they know. So, I just gotta play games, make them think. They're one of the best teams, especially Westbrook, attacking the basket. Got to be aware and try to do my best."
Said Westbrook on his approach to Game 4: "Just attack. Put him [Gobert] in positions where he has to make a decision. He's just sitting underneath the basket, so we've got to make him pay for that."
The Thunder have been backed up against a cliff a number of different times this season and always seemed to have just enough to hang on. This roster of top-heavy talent has confused and perplexed, even leaving a postseason appearance in doubt all the way up until the final week of the season. But the Thunder have always played it cool, believing in their top-line ability and veteran experience not to overreact and worry. Whether it's a big win on the road against a contender or a stabilizing performance that re-grabs the attention of the league and restores belief in themselves, the Thunder have had a response all season long when they had to have one.
And now, with Game 4 on Monday and the Jazz smelling blood, OKC either finally takes the tumble over or pushes back one more time.
"Game 4's going to be a test of what type of team we are," Carmelo Anthony said. "Who we are as a team. I think we look forward to these type of challenges."