In a game that had little competitive feel, Utah was quietly putting together a mild threat.
The Jazz had scored 27 points in the final six minutes of the third quarter on Sunday, quickly slicing a 28-point Thunder lead to 12.
It wasn’t danger time in Oklahoma City. But it was about time to put the foot back on the gas pedal.
And who better than Kevin Durant. As the third-quarter clock ticked down, the MVP frontrunner splashed in a contested 3-pointer, lifting the lead back to 15 and shifting momentum back to OKC for good. Final: Thunder 116, Jazz 96.
“It was tough,” Jazz forward Marvin Williams said of the shot. “It was a big three. It almost took the wind out of your sails.”
“They understand the moment,” Jazz coach Ty Corbin added. “They tend to make big plays at big moments and Durant is certainly one of the best in the league at doing it.”
Because of that shot — and the bench’s ability to stretch the lead in the fourth quarter — Durant didn’t have to play another second. And to extend his remarkable streak to 38 straight games of 25-plus points, he didn’t need to.
Durant turned in another efficient masterpiece on Sunday afternoon, burning the Jazz for 31 points and nine assists in 29 minutes. In the past two games — both Thunder blowouts — Durant has compiled 60 points on 18-of-24 shooting, 7-of-10 from three and 17-of-17 from the free-throw line.
But beyond Durant’s consistent dominance, this Thunder win was about defense.
OKC set the tone in the first quarter, stifling the Jazz with an energized and engaged effort.
Nine minutes into the game, Utah was 2-of-18 shooting. Eleven minutes in, the Jazz only had seven points. At the end of the first quarter, their leading scorer had two and they trailed 26-9.
“We were really getting into the basketball,” Scott Brooks said. “We contested all their shots. Nine points in an NBA quarter is hard to do and it doesn’t happen often.”
For the Thunder, it tied an opponent season-low for a quarter and essentially sealed the game. Despite an offensive push in the middle quarters, the Jazz never got within single-digits after the six-minute mark of the first.
“I’ve stepped up a lot,” Russell Westbrook said of his defense, days after he was highly critical of his performance on that end. “I feel like we need to start the game off more defensively and I thought we’ve done that the past two games.”
But the true test will come in the next two games.
After a pair of expected blowouts of Utah and Sacramento, the Thunder has three days off before a back-to-back with the red-hot Spurs and Rockets. San Antonio has won 17 in a row.
“Just continue to play our brand of basketball,” Caron Butler said of the matchup. “Play with a lot of energy and effort.”
Energy and effort had been spotty in the batch of games immediately after the All-Star break. But those two things have consistently been there of late, with the Thunder winning six of its past seven.
Now comes a heavyweight matchup on Thursday, coming on the heels of two of the Thunder’s better performances in a while.