SALT LAKE CITY — The stakes set up an intriguing showdown.
For the Thunder, Tuesday's contest was about preventing a rare two-game skid.
For the Utah Jazz, it was a fight for their playoff lives.
“It's going to be a perfect game for a physical game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks predicted.
As it turns out, that's precisely what the Thunder needed.
Oklahoma City regained its defensive focus in a knockdown, drag-out affair and prevailed, 90-80, over the Jazz, bouncing back from a disappointing performance two days earlier against New York.
The Thunder controlled the pace and tempo from start to finish, resulting in a scoreboard that reflected as much. OKC never trailed after tying the game at 4-all with 9:19 remaining in the opening period.
“We were professional in the way we came in focused,” said Nick Collison. “We stayed with it that whole game. We didn't have a bad stretch where we let them go on a run. That's usually a result of us being locked in most every play.”
Kevin Durant finished one assist shy of his fourth career triple-double, scoring 21 points with 12 rebounds and nine assists, and Russell Westbrook added a game-high 25 points with five rebounds.
Westbrook scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter, seven coming in the final five minutes to put away the Jazz. Despite an 8-for-21 shooting night, Westbrook nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing with 4:30 left to play to push the Thunder's lead to 12.
Utah used a 10-2 run over the next four minutes to pull within four. But Westbrook iced the game by stealing an inbounds pass Paul Millsap intended for Mo Williams before streaking the other way for an uncontested dunk that gave the Thunder an eight-point lead with 16.3 seconds remaining.
“It was well executed,” Brooks said of his team's defense on that Jazz inbounds play. “There was no open looks off the initial first or second option. That was the third option. And then we did a good job of denying and got the steal. (Westbrook) is as athletic as any player in this league and he can get from rim to rim pretty quick, and I don't know if you're going to be able to catch him once he gets a step on you.”
Westbrook's steal was the final of Utah's 17 turnovers, which led to 16 Thunder points. It was one of a trio of areas in which the Thunder looked night-and-day different than it did against the Knicks on Sunday, when OKC forced a season-low six turnovers.
Two nights after allowing 19 offensive rebounds, the Thunder yielded only six to a Jazz team that has bullied it on the boards plenty in the past. Thanks to that rebounding effort, the Thunder surrendered just seven second-chance points.
Jazz big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap combined for 17 rebounds and only two on the offensive end. Given how ineffective that tandem was despite playing 32 and 38 minutes, respectively, the Jazz were powerless to keep up with the Thunder.
More impressively, the Thunder limited Millsap and Jefferson to 23 points on 24 shots.
“We did a good job of doing our work early and making their catches further out,” Collison said. “The further out they catch it, the more we can get (help) from the perimeter player. And our guards were doing a good job of being active and making them guess. They couldn't just get into their move. And then the biggest thing is we just kept them off the board. That's what we've struggled with against them in the past.”
After allowing the Knicks to knock down 15 3-pointers Sunday, the Thunder shut off the Jazz's perimeter attack and limited Utah to 7-for-25 shooting from 3-point range. Meanwhile, guard Thabo Sefolosha drained four 3s by himself for the Thunder.
Nothing illustrated the Thunder's defensive turnaround quite like scoring by quarter. New York scored at least 29 points in all three periods Sunday. On this night, Utah scored more than 19 points in only one quarter.
“We had great intensity,” Brooks said. “We came out with the mindset of getting stops every time down the court, and we did that.”