OKLAHOMA CITY -- A little more than halfway through Game 5 of this Western Conference first round series, obituaries were being written in basketball corners about the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder, and surely they weren’t glowing or sympathetic.
Yes, perhaps a common passage about this franchise as it faced elimination was: Rest In Peace now, and after Paul George leaves this summer, Rest In Pieces.
With 8 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter against the plucky Utah Jazz, the Thunder were down 25 points and the usually supportive and polite Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd turned hostile. The boos were dropping almost as fast and as rare as the 3-pointers Jazz reserve forward Jae Crowder was nailing in the first half.
And then, perhaps in some strange manner of telepathy, Thunder stars George and Russell Westbrook read those obits and muttered: To hell with that, we’re not going out like this.
Then, madness ensued, the script was flipped, OKC won 107-99 and the Jazz series lead was cut to 3-2. All of this came after the Thunder delivered their gutsiest -- if not their best -- second half of a very strange and at times frustrating season.
“We knew it wasn’t over right here,” said George, speaking of the game, speaking of the season, speaking of his time in OKC (for now, anyway). “We’ve been tested all season long.”
We were having a hard time, and then Russell and Paul gave us life.”
Shots fell, passes fell into the right hands and their own basketball was protected. It was a swift blizzard of OKC basketball that escalated and never slowed until the buzzer sounded. And there was nothing the Jazz did to prevent this series from being extended. The composure and pride of a superteam assembled last summer to contend for a title came together and in the nick of time, allowing the Thunder to save face and their basketball lives for at least another game.
“This series has been about momentum changes,” Westbrook said, “and tonight was our turn.”
How did suspense suddenly creep into a series in which the Jazz controlled and held in their overachieving hands? First, Rudy Gobert got into foul trouble in the third quarter and the change was what you’d expect. Westbrook and George refused to sit the entire second half as Westbrook scored 33 of his 45 points in that span and the duo led the fourth-largest playoff comeback in NBA playoff history.
The game underlined how desperate Westbrook and George were to keep their season (and maybe their relationship as teammates) alive, while the Jazz once again showed how vulnerable they are defensively without their bedrock.
When Gobert suffered a sprained knee in December, the Jazz floundered and were on course to miss the playoffs. Overall, that was a safe projection for a team that lost Gordon Hayward via free agency in the 2017 offseason. Once Gobert returned on Jan. 19, the Jazz went 32-9 -- a mark that includes the first four games of this series. His presence in the middle allowed the Jazz to settle into a secure defensive mindset, knowing that Gobert was willing and able to protect the rim when teammates slipped up.
That safety net disappeared with four minutes left in the third with Gobert got his fifth foul, and once he returned midway through the fourth quarter, OKC was already in control. In that span, Westbrook and George attacked the rim repeatedly and the rally sapped Utah’s spirit.
“We were having a hard time,” said Donovan, “and then Russell and Paul gave us life.”
The two OKC stars played off each other smoothly and effortlessly, taking turns on isolation plays, and combining on pick and rolls. It was the sort of fluid motion that went missing through chunks of an inconsistent regular season, which raised doubts about how compatible George, Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony would be in their first year together.
It was no coincidence that OKC’s rally happened with Anthony on the bench. He missed four of six shots, was invisible offensively and also had defensive issues. Donovan went with Alex Abrines over Anthony in the biggest game of the year, as if anyone needed further evidence of how far Anthony has fallen as an impact player.
“I thought we had a good rhythm and flow going, so went with that group,” explained Donovan.
George was good for 21 points in the second half, 34 for the game, and also played carefully through five fouls during most of the fourth quarter. It was George at his best: scoring, cleaning the glass (eight rebounds) and playing good enough defense that the Thunder finally kept Jazz rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell (23 points on nine-for-22 shooting) from hurting them.
“A 25-point lead isn’t safe in the NBA when you’ve got two guys who do what they did,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
As bravely as the Thunder battled back, there’s the other side of the compliment: What was OKC doing getting bashed on its home floor to begin with? And why must OKC still fight off elimination for, at best, two more games this series, which now shifts to Salt Lake City?
Game 5 was a small sample size of the Thunder’s entire season, actually, filled with head-scratching stretches and also glimpses where they looked elite. Anthony, Westbrook and George are still, here in late April, trying to figure it out. That’s always suspicious.
“We’ve had to fight all season long,” said Westbrook.
That becomes a drag, except the Thunder had no time to fix whatever was broken. The Jazz made sure of that, stealing one of the first two games in OKC and then taking the next two in Utah.
Meanwhile, the Jazz saw an opportunity die Wednesday, and there’s still a nagging question of whether Utah is a very good team, or merely a very hot team. This is for certain: Without Gobert, they’re a very lost team defensively.
“It shows,” Mitchell said. “Even so, it’s hard putting all of that pressure on him. We have to help the big fella out.”
Gobert felt guilty after Game 5 and acknowledged he should’ve been smarter about filling up with fouls: “That’s on me.”
Perhaps so. But this series is still on Westbrook, George and whatever’s left of Anthony for OKC. They have big reputations to keep, a heavily-hyped season to save and quite possibly could lose George to free agency if they fizzle in the first round. And they must return to Salt Lake City on Friday (10:30 ET, TNT), a place where they crumbled last weekend, and win just to have a chance.
“We’ve got to come back and do it again,” said Donovan, “and that’s been this team’s biggest challenge: The consistency.”
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