SALT LAKE CITY -- As the Oklahoma City Thunder shot free throws in the second quarter, a Utah Jazz fan seated baseline waved his cardboard Ricky Rubio cutout head on a stick. The stick snapped in half, and Rubio's head went flying onto the court.
Russell Westbrook popped up off the end of the bench and walked onto the floor, picking up Rubio's cardboard head. He acted as if he were going to crumple it up and then shot a grin at the Jazz fans as they booed him.
After proclaiming following Game 3 that he was going to shut down Rubio, Westbrook came out ready to back it up, picking Rubio up full-court, scrambling back to get in a deep defensive stance and clapping at him as they lined up to go one-on-one.
It was on -- or so it seemed to be.
Westbrook picked up his first foul by inadvertently tripping Rubio and raised his hand immediately to claim the foul. A few minutes later, Westbrook picked up full-court again, and this time Rubio sold some contact to hand Westbrook a second foul some 90 feet from the basket. A third foul came when Westbrook swatted Rubio's fadeaway jumper into another galaxy but was called for some contact. With Westbrook staying in late into the second quarter, Rubio stepped in front of Westbrook and drew a fourth foul on a charge on the perimeter.
As Westbrook walked to the bench with a minute left, smoke fuming off of him as even Mitt Romney taunted him courtside with four fingers in the air, much like in Game 3, the Jazz closed the half with a massive boost of momentum.
"We just stayed within ourselves," Donovan Mitchell said. "We always say the strength of our team is the strength of our team. I said this morning we're not really worried about one individual comment. I think if we get caught up in that it takes us out of our own game, and our play showed tonight that we really just focused on each other and made the right plays when we needed to."
Westbrook accomplished his mission, at least statistically, in the first half. Rubio was shut down, with just six points on 1-of-5 shooting. But it was the gamesmanship by Rubio that bested Westbrook, using Westbrook's hyper-charged energy against him to put him into foul trouble and neutralize his aggressiveness. After the fourth foul, Westbrook just wasn't the same player as he protected against his fifth.
"Little bit. Little bit," Westbrook said of his approach changing because of foul trouble. "Obviously, not being able to be on the ball takes a little bit of aggression away, but things like that happen within the game and you've got to figure out how to play with it."
While the Jazz opened the game with a dynamite third quarter (outscoring OKC 12-2 in the first three minutes), everything changed in those closing minutes of the first half. Utah has a 3-1 lead after a 113-96 win, and the Thunder are officially on the ropes.
"It's not about me and him," Westbrook said when asked if his aggressiveness with Rubio backfired. "Let's get past that. We're done with that."
It's not all that complicated, what the Jazz have done to the Thunder in the series. OKC is losing a simple math problem.
Utah generates better, more consistent shots from efficiency areas, while the Thunder basically cross their fingers that their superstar players have a good night. Even when the looks have been clean -- like they were for Carmelo Anthony -- they aren't going down. Per ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Thunder went 22 minutes, 9 seconds of game time without recording an assist (between made baskets at 10:33 of the second quarter and 0:24 of the third quarter). In that span, they attempted nine shots with an assist opportunity, compared to 27 attempts that didn't have an assist opportunity.
"We were aggressive. We were in attack mode," Paul George said. "We were aggressive. We missed shots. I don't think all season long we've finished a game with only five 3-pointers. We missed shots."
Westbrook hasn't looked himself, and he played with black kinetic tape all over his upper body. Billy Donovan says he's fine -- or at least he hasn't been told of any injury -- and Westbrook has fully participated in practices and shoot-arounds. But he struggled shooting again, hitting 6-of-17 from the floor for 20 points, plus 10 rebounds and 3 assists. George finished with 32 on 9-of-21, but with Anthony hitting just 5-of-18, including 0-of-6 from 3, and with the Thunder unable to produce consistent stops, that wasn't cutting it. It isn't a coincidence that Westbrook finished with three assists and didn't have any in the first quarter.
There was so much talk of the Jazz's playoff experience, or lack thereof, but in Game 4, it was the Thunder who unwound. The intensity in the opening six minutes was off the charts, with technical fouls and light scuffles breaking out, but Utah held its poise while the Thunder took hurried shots and picked up tough fouls. Joe Ingles (20 points) lit the fuse with a flurry of 3s in the first half, and Mitchell (33 points on 13-of-28 shooting) threw the closing haymakers.
As the Thunder know firsthand, a series doesn't end at 3-1. But the way the Jazz have outclassed the Thunder in the past two games sure makes it feel like it should. Game 5 is Wednesday in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder will take the floor having talked tough but returning home red-faced with their season on the line.
"We gotta win. Nothing to it. We've just gotta win," Anthony said. "We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn't do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah and taking it from there."