Is a Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder Rivalry Brewing?

Jan 23, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes up for a shot against Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 23, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes up for a shot against Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder continue to clash on the court and in the standings, could there potentially be a heated rivalry brewing in the near future?

Last night the Utah Jazz played host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a match-up that featured the current fifth and sixth seeds in the Western Conference. With just a few games separating the two teams in the playoff race and great talent on both squads, it was clear that this would be a great game from the get-go.

Both teams have big aspirations and a lot to prove this season as the Jazz have failed to make the playoffs for four straight seasons and Russell Westbrook and Co. want to show that they have effectively moved on after the departure of Kevin Durant.

And the Monday night contest did not disappoint. Despite the fact that Jazz fans were most certainly unhappy about the final outcome, the game itself was one of the most intense and memorable of the season so far.

In all reality, it looked like a game between two well-matched but bitter rivals.

It was a seesaw affair that saw both teams go on big runs that at one point or another looked like it would lead them to victory, until the other team seemingly miraculously caught up.

That theme continued all the way until the final seconds as Gordon Hayward’s three-pointer to tie the game at 95 was followed by Westbrook’s game winner with just over a second left leading to a thrilling 97-95 victory for the visiting OKC Thunder and a heartbreaking loss for the Jazz.

The hard-fought contest had all the feel of a playoff game and, ironically enough, last night’s contest could very well be a first round preview. With Chris Paul of the LA Clippers sidelined for at least the next month and a half, there’s a realistic chance that the Clippers could slip in the standings and the Jazz and Thunder could then very well finish with the fourth and fifth seeds in the West resulting in a first round showdown.

But aside from the fact that this was a tight game between two good playoff teams, it had the feeling of a heated rivalry for many more reasons.

First of all, Utah and Oklahoma City are very familiar with one another given the fact that being in the same division, they see each other four times per season year in and year out. Although in the past few seasons, OKC has clearly been the dominant team in the division, the Jazz are finally flipping the script.

And while winning a division doesn’t quite carry the prestige or importance that it once did, you know that a guy with an ego like Westbrook’s takes note when a “star-less” (in his eyes) divisional foe like the Jazz finds themselves boasting a better team and a better record.

His disdain and disrespect for the Jazz were quite clear from well before the game started when he was asked about how the Thunder would contain Rudy Gobert to which Westbrook responded with nothing more than a scoff, laugh and walk-off.

But Westbrook wasn’t finished there. Once the game started, it was clear that he was a man on a mission, perhaps partially due to the fact that he had recently been snubbed as an All-Star starter, but it was obvious that Westbrook also wanted to prove a point to a Jazz team that has been largely considered superior to his own this season.

While he undoubtedly put on a scoring clinic in the first half of Monday’s contest, he wasn’t about to settle for just putting points up on the Jazz. In an effort to silence any doubts about whether his mockery of Gobert and the Jazz during pre-game was justified, Westbrook went up for a monster slam on Utah’s up-and-coming center, the results of which you can see below:

Some will say Westbrook simply just missed, others will say Gobert affected the shot. Whatever your opinion, the fact remains that Westbrook was unsuccessful in at least this one statement attempt.

Beyond just that dunk attempt though, it was clear all night long that the Jazz fans and players weren’t feeling the slightest bit of affection towards the Thunder’s volatile point guard and that he wasn’t reciprocating any love either.

So between Westbrook’s antics and the familiarity between these two teams, you can certainly see the sparks of a rivalry taking shape. But the fuel to that fire doesn’t just stop there.

The Jazz and their fans already had a bad taste in their mouth about the Thunder because of a certain Enes Kanter, who had more than a few bad things to say about his former team and organization. Kanter can’t step foot in the state of Utah without being booed, so it’s pretty safe to say there’s some bad blood there.

Not to mention, while the Thunder are having a good season so far, they make for a perfect Jazz rival essentially because the two teams are the antithesis of one another. While Utah is a group that is all about the team, about being a unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the Thunder rely almost entirely on a one-man wrecking crew known as Russell Westbrook.

Sure, his assist numbers will tell you that he utilizes the team as well, but this Thunder team would be nothing without their starting point guard. He shoulders the load night in and night out, almost to a ridiculous level. So every time these two teams get together, it’s a battle between the power of the team and the power of an individual. The Jazz focus on utilizing their group as a whole while the Thunder focus on playing off of one single guy.

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And these kind of opposing mantras truly make for a great storybook kind of rivalry. Last night’s game was clearly a match between two teams that don’t much care for one another – from Westbrook’s utter disrespect, to Kanter’s criticisms, to the fact that Utah has long been seen as an afterthought instead of a divisional rival, there are a lot of chips on a lot of shoulders whenever these two teams take the court.

And given the fact that the two teams have only played twice against one another so far this year could very well mean that this small blaze of a rivalry could still grow into something much more intense before the end of the regular season.

You can bet that Rudy, who’s an extreme competitor, took exception to Westbrook’s attitude and he and his teammates are going to be more than ready to exact some revenge the next time they take the floor.

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With both the Jazz and Thunder so close in the standings, it’s likely that there will be a great deal at stake each time they face off against one another, and as they do so, there will likely be more debate as to which team is better, more Westbrook antics throwing fuel on the fire and more heated contests that could very well lead to some unpleasant exchanges.

And if these teams should happen to meet in the playoffs, you can bet that their evenly matched talent and clear disdain for one another will come to a head, and from there I’m nearly certain that the slight clashes between these two teams that we’ve seen so far will then turn into a full-blown rivalry.

But with how exciting last night’s game was, I for one am fully in favor of that very thing coming to fruition.