George Sets Defensive Tone, Thunder Plays It Right All Night – OKC 103, UTA 89

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

SALT LAKE CITY -- Paul George dug in on the very first possession of the night, and played it so physically that he was called for a foul. He only picked up one more the rest of the game, but the standard had been set – Utah wasn’t going to get to run freely through their offense on Saturday night.

Behind George’s six steals and a defensive effort that held Utah to just 33-for-72 shooting, including a 6-for-26 mark from the three-point line, the Thunder completed its first sweep of a back-to-back this season, and clinched a 3-1 season series win over the Jazz with a 103-89 victory.

“The first time we played here, we were unsure of who we were,” said George after the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma, referencing the Thunder’s loss to Utah in the second game of the season. “It was really a good test to come into a hostile crowd and a team who plays well on their floor on the first time here.”

“Tonight, we just brought it on the back to back. We knew the situation,” George continued. “We’re playing well. We’re playing for one another. Our defense is holding up and offensively we’re starting to get a little flow.”

After getting in late after Friday’s buzzer-beating win over Atlanta in icy Oklahoma City, the Thunder had a quick turnaround before its early tip off in Salt Lake City against its Northwest Division rival. It was the fourth meeting between these squads, and the second in four days after the Thunder thumped Utah 107-79 on Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

If Head Coach Billy Donovan could have written a wishlist for his team to deliver on in this game, the Thunder checked off every controllable item. To finish off the third game in four nights with just 8 turnovers, a 16-8 edge in second chance points and a dominant, disruptive and consistent defensive effort was simply outstanding. George picked up two-thirds of the Thunder’s nine steals and slapped two of the team’s five blocked shots, and the entire team followed suit to be physical and disruptive.

“(George) was really active. He did a great job,” Donovan reviewed. “He was aggressive, active hands, deflections, steals, rebounds, blocks. I mean he was all over the place defensively. He made a huge impact in the game.”

“Whoever I’m matched with night-in and night-out that’s my job to make it tough, to bring that intensity on the defensive end and to come out strong,” George explained. “That’s why I was brought here, to play defense and help Russ offensively.”

So with that steady defense as the baseline, the Thunder was able to simply lay in wait for its offensive rhythm to form. There were spurts of explosiveness for the Thunder, including a 14-4 run early in the first quarter behind back-to-back Paul George buckets, then a Russell Westbrook banked in mid-range look. But the second quarter was a struggle offensively, and the Thunder was shooting just 41 percent heading into halftime.

After the break, the Thunder’s patience paid off. A tough Westbrook three-pointer was the jolt the Thunder’s starters needed to rip off an 11-2 run midway through the third quarter. That stretch also featured back-to-back George three-pointers, as he ran off of screens on the right hand side of the floor to perfection.

“You try to give him a couple ways to go. Any player, if he only has one direction to go, sometimes it’s hard,” Donovan said of George’s off-ball options. “He’s really good at setting his man up and going one way and coming back the other. He just kind of keeps people off balance. He has really good footwork and he’s got good speed coming off screens so when he catches it he can make some plays.”

All night long, George (26 points on 10-for-17 shooting) had Jazz defenders twisting themselves in knots trying to track him, and his teammates kept freeing him up for little curls at the right elbow where he could catch on the move in triple-threat position.

“I got amazing screeners in Steve-o (Adams), Pat (Patterson) and Jerami (Grant),” George said. “Great screeners, and a heck of a point guard in Russ who is going to find me. I just have to make the game easy.”

Donovan’s second unit finished what the Thunder starters began, taking that lead and building it up to as many as 15 in the early stages of the fourth quarter, and then maintaining it at nine points or higher the rest of the way. Patrick Patterson started the final frame with a three-pointer and then two free throws after a nice drive to the rim, and then point guard Raymond Felton buried two vital midrange jumpers to keep the scoreboard moving.

“It’s just important to keep the ball moving, finding opportunities for myself and other teammates,” Patterson noted. “If there’s two on Ray and I have an open shot, I’ll take it. If someone’s closing out, I’ll drive it.”

When Utah’s Donovan Mitchell put the pressure on by cutting it to 85-76 with 8:11 to go, George scored on a second chance three-pointer, off a pass from Westbrook, who finished with a 27-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. The Thunder point guard was joined in double figures by Carmelo Anthony (16) points and Steven Adams (12 points, 9 rebounds), as the team hit 9-of-16 threes and scored 56 points after halftime.

“We wanted to come out and set the tone early. Defensively we did that. Once we set the tone early we had the momentum throughout the whole game,” Anthony said. “We didn’t want to let our foot off the gas tonight.”

The Jazz never threatened after that, allowing the Thunder to take care of business over the final minutes and head back to Oklahoma City for what is hopefully a very, very Merry Christmas matchup with the Houston Rockets.

Thunder at Jazz Highlights:

By the Numbers

3 – Assists for Carmelo Anthony to go with 16 points and 6 rebounds for a well-rounded complementary performance

9-for-16 – Three-point shooting numbers for the Thunder after halftime

20-7 – The Thunder’s advantage in points off turnovers on the night, a huge emphasis before the game

The Last Word

“Defense is an energy thing. You have to have great energy. I give our guys credit, when we some lulls in the game where we weren’t scoring it didn’t really impact our energy.” – Head Coach Billy Donovan

That's a wrap in Utah. >> 27p/10a/10r >> 26p + 6 steals #thunderup

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