The war was at the rim all night. Paul George delivered the final salvo, an outrageous one-handed driving dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo, providing a fitting finishing punch to the battle of the deep paint between the Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks.
George’s dunk came with the game pressure on at the highest levels after the Bucks pulled to within four, then after an Eric Bledsoe three cut the Thunder lead to 110-107, George posted up on the left wing. As the shot clock drained down towards nothing, George rose up over Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon and reminded the Bucks of his team’s mastery of the perimeter tonight too.
“I saw (Antetokounmpo) pull over late. He’s a guy who is going to make a play at the rim. Any floaters or anything like that, he’s going to try to block,” George said of the dunk. “At that point, you gotta go aggressive at the rim.”
“It’s P. He’s always pulling something out. He got his NASA shoes on, so he definitely had to take off one time and that’s exactly what he did,” grinned Ferguson. “Put that in the commercial right there.”
“When I got a smaller guy on me, just shoot over the top,” George said about the three-pointer one possession after the dunk. “At the end of the day, I have length over them so they can’t contest it. So just back him up, put him on his heels and get the shot I want.”
The triple gave the Thunder a 6-point lead with 48.1 seconds to go, and it gave George 8 of the team’s 16 made three-pointers in the game. The Thunder shot 50 percent from behind the arc as George tied he and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder record for made three-pointers in a game. Whether if it was off catch and shoots in transition or those remarkable post ups at the wing, George fired with confidence and racked up 36 points to go with 13 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
“(George) has been playing unbelievable obviously all year long and has done a great job of being consistent on a night-in, night-out basis and making big shots for us, like tonight,” said Westbrook of his running mate, who received MVP chants from the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd as he knocked down a pair of late free throws.
While George knocked them down from everywhere, Westbrook set everybody up by dishing out 11 assists to go with 13 points and 13 rebounds, part of his 16th triple-double of the season and 120th in his career. Westbrook found George and Dennis Schröder for threes, Terrance Ferguson on flex cuts at the rim and both Steven Adams and Jerami Grant on rolls to the bucket.
All six of those guys, who each scored in double figures, plus Nerlens Noel, Patrick Patterson and Abdel Nader were are critical to the Thunder’s performance on the other end of the floor. Antetokounmpo, who came into the game on a historic tear finishing with dunks at the rim, was held without a made field goal in the first half. Led by Grant’s five total swats, the Thunder blocked seven of Antetokounmpo’s shots, the most times any player has been blocked in a game this season. It was a microcosm for the way the Thunder dominated the rim for the game.
“Jerami did a really good job. Our rotations were really good,” Adams explained. “Our scramble situations were bloody on point tonight.”
“Everywhere Giannis went, he saw a crowd. That was our whole game plan. We stopped him in the first half especially. We stuck together throughout the whole game, competed and was physical with him,” Ferguson explained. “It’s tough going through five players.”
Every Bucks player had to drive right through the center of a Thunder players’ chest any time they attacked the paint, and with swarming length coming over to help, the result was turnovers (14 for 20 OKC points) and errant shots. The Bucks started the game just 4-for-18 (22.2 percent) in the paint and shot just 22-for-52 (42.3 percent) overall in the lane, thanks in part to some excellent transition defense by the Thunder, which held Milwaukee to just 8 points on 7 fast break field goal attempts.
“We were sharp. We rotated. We helped. That’s what our defense is when we’re number one,” said George. “Tonight we did do an excellent job of shrinking the floor and flying out to their shooters. We did a little of everything and it was enough for us to win.”
“It takes a good level of connection through the whole team that everybody is going to help, everybody is going to be in position,” George added. “We might get beat off the dribble but we gotta pull over and the next man has to be there.”
The first half of this one was characterized by big runs, including an 8-0 burst by the Bucks to start to game, only to be followed by bursts of 13-5 and 16-3 by the Thunder, then a 16-7 run by Billy Donovan’s club to begin the second quarter. By halftime, the Thunder led by 14.
After halftime, the Thunder’s most pressing concern was just keeping Milwaukee at bay. For most of the third quarter that mission was accomplished, but with three consecutive three-pointers, the Bucks cut the Thunder lead to 7 with 1:23 to go after a 15-3 run.
In the fourth the Thunder regained control and pushed the lead back out to double digits but suddenly at the 3:00 mark, Milwaukee was back in it, eventually slashing the lead to four points and then three in between George’s clutch buckets with less than two minutes to go. The Thunder still had to play out the string and sealed the deal with Grant rotating perfectly on the weak side to make a steal and run out into the open floor.