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At shootaround on Friday morning, Jazz coach Quin Snyder was asked what just a few weeks removed from being beat down by Oklahoma City in their first meeting his team might be able to do to slow the Thunder down in their rematch.
"Have [Kevin] Durant not play?" he joked.
Yeah. That would have done it.
The former MVP broke the hearts of about 19,000 people at Vivint Arena on Friday night, staving off a Jazz rally and doing it by himself. In a 94-90 Thunder win, Durant scored 21 points including his team's final 11 of the night.
"That's when you tip your hat and say, 'That's a hell of a team, a great player. That's a Hall of Fame player.' I mean, that's what he does," Snyder said after the loss.
With the game tied at 87, Durant used a screen to give him a little bit of daylight and fired up a straightaway 3 to break the deadlock with about a minute to play.
After a Jazz miss, Utah was fortunate enough to see the Thunder's All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook, miss a shot of his own. But a key offensive rebound let OKC eat up more than 40 precious seconds all while giving Durant another shot to salt things away.
Matched up one-on-one 30 feet from the basket with Jazz forward Trevor Booker, Durant drove left, stopped and hit a shot from the free-throw line.
"That's why he's an All-Star, one of the best player's in the league," Booker said. "That's what he's in there to do. He just made tough shots."
Snyder, who praised his team's defensive effort in the loss, also defended Booker's effort against Durant on that key play.
"The guy's 7 feet tall. You can't block his shot," Snyder said. "He didn't shake him up where he wasn't there. … I thought he got a great contest in."
The Jazz's defense was, indeed, quite good against the Thunder, despite Durant's 21-point night and Westbrook's game-high 25 points. It's the reason Utah had a shot at victory, despite shooting 42 percent from the field and hitting on just eight of 28 attempts from beyond the arc.
"This was a game that I was really proud of how we competed," Snyder said. "It was a very physical game. I thought we took that challenge."
And it was certainly an improvement from these teams' first meeting of the year a 111-89 blowout win for the Thunder in late November.
"Last time, they came in here and basically punked us," Booker said. "We couldn't let that happen again. We fought our butts off. It just didn't fall in our favor."
The Jazz got 19 points and eight rebounds from Gordon Hayward and 31 combined points from the bench duo of Trey Burke and Alec Burks.
Utah outscored the Thunder in each of the game's final three quarters, but it wasn't enough to erase the damage done by a sluggish start to the game. The night opened with a lob from Westbrook to Durant to start a quick 9-0 run for the Thunder and the Jazz trailed 27-15 after one.
The Jazz's comeback was slow and methodical, chipping away at the OKC lead quarter by quarter until late in the fourth quarter when the game was suddenly within reach. Jazz guard Rodney Hood's only 3-pointer of the night came at a crucial time. Burks followed up with an acrobatic layup to make it a 3-point game with about 2:45 remaining.
Booker tied the game at 87 with a putback dunk and, one possession later, a trip to the free-throw line to cap a 16-4 run.
After scoring 10 points in the first half, Durant had been scoreless in the second half until the 4:19 mark of the fourth quarter.
But all Durant needed was one bucket to find his groove again. The superstar bounced off Hayward near the edge of the key and hit an off-balance floater from 18 feet out for his first make of the second half.
"I just felt like if I hit one shot, I feel like I am hot," he said. "I was able to make one. It was a crazy off-balance shot, but once I saw it go through the rim I was, like, 'All right, let's go, it's time to get going.'"
That was just about the end of Utah's comeback attempt.
"At least we're fighters and we gave ourselves a chance there," said Hayward, who found some positives amid the frustrations of his team's fifth loss by five points or fewer. "Just fell a little short.
The Jazz will get another shot at the Thunder very soon, traveling to Oklahoma City for a rematch on Sunday evening.
"That's the good thing about the NBA," Hayward said. "We've got another crack at it Sunday. It's going to be tougher in their building for sure."
Not least of all because Durant will be there waiting.
R The Jazz outscore OKC in each of the game's last three quarters, but it isn't enough to erase a 27-15 deficit after the first quarter.
• Former Jazzman Enes Kanter scores 11 points and has six rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench for Oklahoma City.
• The Jazz struggle again from 3-point range, going 8 for 28 in the loss to the Thunder. > C4
• Utah forward Derrick Favors hopes to make the All-Star roster this season. > C5