Three reasons the Jazz have Thunder on the brink of elimination after Game 4 win

Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder (99) scuffles with Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (left) and guard Josh Huestis (34) and forward Carmelo Anthony (right) and Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (second from right) during the second half of game four of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

The Utah Jazz, who three months ago found themselves nine games under .500 and nowhere near playoff position in the NBA’s brutal Western Conference, are on the verge of surging into the second round of the postseason.

The Jazz’s 113-96 win in Game 4 over Oklahoma City on Monday night in Salt Lake City was a clinic on the physical and psychological fronts, as the Thunder’s star-studded squad struggled mightily to contain Utah’s united core. Here’s a look at three key reasons that the Thunder, now trailing 3-1 with Game 5 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, are on the brink of elimination.

1. Russell Westbrook’s bravado backfires

When Westbrook vowed to “shut that (expletive) down” after Ricky Rubio’s 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist outing in Game 3, it begged this question: Was that the right approach? Rubio has never been a featured scorer on this team or any other, meaning the prospect of Westbrook targeting him defensively in this kind of mano-a-mano manner meant there could be unintended consequences.

Driving lanes might open up for Utah’s top threat, rookie Donovan Mitchell, or big man Rudy Gobert without Westbrook playing the free safety-style role in the lane. Small forward Joe Ingles, who shot 44% from three-point range in each of the past two regular seasons, could have one less help defender to worry about. All of that happened, as it turned out – and then some.

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  • Westbrook’s overzealous approach earned him two fouls in the first eight minutes of play, and he drew his third with 7:25 left in the second quarter. And then came the decision from Thunder coach Billy Donovan that will lead to all sorts of scrutiny: He kept Westbrook in the game, then saw him draw a fourth foul at the 1:36 mark in the second when he barreled through Rubio for a charge (with even Mitt Romney getting in on the fun, holding up four fingers as Westbrook headed for the bench). The Jazz surged with Westbrook out, finishing the quarter on a 20-9 run to lead 58-52 at halftime.

    In the end, Westbrook had a rough night (23 points on seven of 18 shooting; 0-for-3 from three-point range, 14 rebounds, three assists and a minus-14 rating) while Rubio still managed to do plenty of damage (13 points, eight assists, six rebounds and a plus-22 rating). It was Mitchell, though, who was special yet again (33 points, seven rebounds, four assists).

    2. Ingles the irritant

    Game 4 was edgy in every way – just like Joe Ingles likes it.

    The 30-year-old small forward is one of the league’s lesser-known rabble-rousers, as capable of burying a three in your face as he is of trash-talking in it. Or, as was the case late in the second quarter, sometimes he does both.

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    He hit three three-pointers in the final 1:43 of the first half, then bumped Thunder star Paul George every time down the floor afterward. He eventually drew a technical foul, but it was clear he was getting under George’s skin. Ingles provided the final dagger near the end, hitting his last of five threes with 1:28 left to push Utah’s lead to 20 points.

    Ingles, an Australian who played internationally for eight years before entering the NBA in 2014, finished with 20 points and four assists. George had 32 points (nine of 21 shooting) and six rebounds.

    3. Where did ‘Melo go?

    This wasn’t what Carmelo Anthony had in mind when he agreed to waive his no-trade clause back in late September.

    The 10-time All-Star who was traded from the Knicks to the Thunder during the offseason was already coming off the worst shooting regular season of his career, having shot just 40.4% overall while averaging a career-low 16.2 points per game. And now, he’s well on his way to having his worst playoff performance yet.

    After missing 13 of 18 shots overall (and all six of his three-pointers) and finishing with just 11 points in Game 4, Anthony finds himself averaging just 14.3 points for the series while shooting 37.2% overall and 23% from three-point range (six of 26).

    Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter.

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