OKLAHOMA CITY – A poised and productive Ricky Rubio has been smiling and laughing, masterfully running Utah’s offense in his matchup with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.
Meanwhile, the reigning league MVP has been scowling, shoving, fouling, complaining and most of all – losing.
It’s fair to say Rubio has been more effective for the Jazz.
The Rubio-Westbrook matchup mirrors what is happening throughout the NBA playoffs: The team that gets the best point guard play usually wins.
Rubio’s all-around success has the Jazz on the brink of advancing. Utah has a 3-1 lead on the Thunder and can finish the series Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.
He summed up his play after Game 2, saying “I did my job, looking for my teammates, and looking for my shot too when it was open. I just took what the game gave me and watched film and got better and we played as a team.”
Maybe it is just that simple.
Rubio is averaging 18.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8 assists per game against Oklahoma City, all well above his regular season numbers. The 27-year-old is in the first playoff series of his seven-year career, yet he is playing like a seasoned veteran.
Westbrook and the Thunder have tried to throw Rubio off his game, maybe to a fault.
Westbrook has lost his focus at times. He is averaging 21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the series, but he’s shooting just 37 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3-point range.
Rubio went for a triple-double in a Game 3 victory , the first playoff triple-double for the franchise since John Stockton had one in 2001.
Westbrook said he’d shut down Rubio in Game 4, but his efforts backfired – Rubio got more of Westbrook’s attention, and the Thunder weren’t as effective helping on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Utah’s two best players. Westbrook was overly aggressive and had four fouls at halftime. The Jazz rolled 113-96 . On Tuesday, he was fined $10,000 and assessed a postgame technical foul for initiating a confrontation with Gobert in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game.
Westbrook toned down the situation with Rubio after the game.
“It wasn’t about me or him,” he said. “Let’s get past that. We’re done with that.”
Looking around the playoffs, that’s probably a good thing.
How goes a team’s point guard, so goes the team.
New Orleans’ Rajon Rondo and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons are among the point guards whose play has lifted their teams.
That has been true in the matchup between Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Washington’s John Wall. In Toronto’s two wins, Lowry averaged 10.5 assists, but 6.5 in two losses. Wall averaged 27.5 points and 14 assists as Washington won two games to even the series.
The 32-year-old Rondo appeared to be overmatched heading into the matchup with Portland’s Damian Lillard but showed he is not past his prime.
Rondo averaged 11.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 13.3 assists to help the New Orleans sweep the Trail Blazers. Lillard averaged just 18.5 points in the series, eight below his regular-season average, and shot just 35 percent from the field.
Philadelphia’s Simmons has averaged 19.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists t help the 76ers take a 3-1 lead in their series against the Miami Heat. In Game 4, he had the first triple-double for a rookie in a playoff game since Magic Johnson in 1980.
Miami’s Goran Dragic is playing well, too – he’s averaging 19.5 points and shooting 49 percent. But when Simmons has been special, the 76ers have won.
Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe and Boston’s Terry Rozier have gone back and forth on the court and in the media. Rozier dominated the first two games – both Boston wins – averaging 23 points on 47 percent shooting while Bledsoe averaged 10.5 points and shot 36 percent.
Bledsoe won the next two matchups, and so did the Bucks. Bledsoe averaged 13 points on 50 percent shooting while Rozier averaged 9.5 points on 26 percent shooting.
Rubio doesn’t have to statistically out-perform Westbrook, who has averaged a triple-double the past two seasons. For Rubio, the key has been not trying to do too much. Just be the team’s floor general.
On offense, he takes open shots and finds his teammates. On defense, he can take chances because the 7-foot-1 Gobert can erase most mistakes.
“That is our strength,” Rubio said. “Play as a team and get a win.”
One more Utah win and Oklahoma City’s season is done.
Freelancer John Coon in Salt Lake City, Utah, contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.