Defensive Pride, Point Guard’s Big Plays Propel Thunder - OKC 98, UTA 89

SALT LAKE CITY – Most players would have just let the play go. Give up a layup, avoid a foul and move on to the next possession. Not Russell Westbrook.

Crashing over from the weak side, the 6-foot-3 Westbrook slashed into the lane to first strip 7-foot-1 Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and then climb the ladder to block him just in front of the rim. The loose ball eventually ended up in fellow Thunder point guard Dennis Schröder’s hands and then out into transition where the speedy German finished a slick driving layup off the glass, plus the foul.

“It was a big moment,” Schröder said. “Russ, he never just stops playing. He’s always competing. He didn’t give up on that play.”

“I got the rebound, just being aggressive,” Schröder added. “I used that opportunity to go to the basket.”

The sequence was not just a significant one during the fourth quarter of a tight contest, but a model for the way the Thunder finished off a season-sweep of the division rival Jazz, closing out a long road trip with a 98-89 road victory.

“Russ makes incredible plays on a nightly basis. Dennis stepped up big time tonight,” said Paul George.

It all started on defene. In the first quarter the Thunder forced Utah into an 0-for-8 start from the three-point line, getting out to the perimeter to get a hand in the face of each shooter, disrupting Utah’s rhythm from the very outset. Utah responded with a 10-2 run to end the quarter, and the Jazz made one strong run in each of the four quarters but the Thunder had an answer on each occasion.

In the second quarter the Thunder surrounded an 8-0 Jazz run with spurts of 8-0 and 10-0 on its own, the second of which came mostly at the hand of Steven Adams, who negated some of Rudy Gobert’s effectiveness around the rim with post ups, drawing the towering center out of the lane. Westbrook, George and Schröder also made plays for teammates by holding up the action in the lane for just long enough to find backdoor passes, kick out to shooters or draw fouls. In the second quarter alone, the Thunder outscored Utah 14-2 in the paint.

George only took 8 shot attempts on the night as he was quickly double-teamed every time he touched the ball in a pick-and-roll setting. No matter to the do-it-all forward, who served as a playmaker and defensive ace. Not only did George hold Joe Ingles to 2-of-9 shooting and 5 points, but he also dished out 4 assists and moved the ball quickly every time Utah blitzed him with two defenders.  

“We just continued on working that action. They’re going to put two on the ball, it left them out of position on the back side. It’s something we work through, making better reads but I thought that was good action for us.”

Capping the end of the half, when the Thunder held Utah to just 37 points, was a marvelous low cross-over dribble by Westbrook that propelled him into the lane for a crafty lefty finish just before the break.

To start the third and fourth quarters Utah charged the Thunder on 12-1 and 11-0 runs, cutting the Thunder lead to as few as 6 at 80-74 and then 89-83. In the second half, though, the Thunder’s pair of point guards had all the answers as Schröder scored 18 of his 24 points after the break, including 13 in the third quarter as he shot 10-of-18 and regained a rhythm on his jump shot. At one point, Schröder scored 9 of 11 Thunder points late in the period to push the Thunder’s lead back out to 13 points heading into the fourth quarter.

“(Schröder) being aggressive helped, knowing he had the hot hand and a lot of times he had a mismatch. We wanted him to be aggressive,” said George. “He got himself into a good rhythm and he can score the ball.”

The Jazz battled back into it behind an electric Donovan Mitchell, but the Thunder still maintained enough of a physical presence, without fouling, to keep Utah from scoring efficiently. For the night, the Thunder held the Jazz to just 36.5 percent shooting, including a 12-for-41 (29.3 percent) mark from the three-point line and just 17 free throw attempts.

“We did a great job of just competing on the defensive end, offensive end, having fun and going back to our identity,” said Schröder.

“We just did a great job moving our feet and really playing without fouling,” George noted.

After Jerami Grant got fouled in transition with 3:30 to go and hit both free throws, the Thunder’s defense again buckled down, holding Utah to just one point over the next three possessions while Westbrook finished off the game in style. First the Thunder leader buried a 33-foot three-pointer from the “U” in the red, orange and yellow “Utah” script that lay across mid-court. One possession later, Westbrook turned the corner at the top of the key and attacked downhill, beating Gobert to the rim for a righty layup that sent the Thunder up by 12 with less than two minutes to go. Westbrook finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists.

It was a crucial win for the Thunder as it went 2-2 on this challenging Western Conference road trip, and brought the team’s record to 41-26 on the season, securing at least a .500 record for the 10th-straight season for Oklahoma City. That is the third-longest current streak in the NBA, behind the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.