If the Thunder’s back was against the wall heading into Game 5 at home, down 3-1 in the series, then it was slowly sinking into the mortar midway through the third quarter when it trailed the Utah Jazz by 25 points.
The Thunder faithful didn’t leave. The players looked each other in the eye. Everyone made a choice, together. They were going to go all out, leaving it all on the court, no matter the result. What they got out of it was the third-biggest comeback in NBA playoff history, using a 32-7 run to end the third quarter on its way to a magical 107-99 victory.
“It was one of those nights where obviously our bench, our crowd, everyone here in Oklahoma was behind us,” said point guard Russell Westbrook. We needed every bit of it tonight and our guys stepped up and made big plays.”
All it needed was a sliver of hope to go with the personal pride and resolve to keep charging, and it got exactly that when a flurry of downhill attacks to the rim drew the fourth fouls on both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. With Utah’s two rim protectors saddled with the burden of having to either sit or play less aggressively, the Thunder was able to push the pace offensively and repeatedly get high percentage shots. On the defensive end, the Thunder forced tough jumpers over outstretched hands by switching everything on the perimeter.
“What really improved was our defense,” said forward Paul George. “Defensively is what made it a little bit easier on the offense, when our defense was clicking on that level.”
Westbrook got himself into a rhythm by knocking down a pair of three-pointers that quickly chopped that 25-point lead down to 18, then after Paul George scored on an and-one at the rim through sheer force of will, Westbrook stayed in attack mode. The supernova point guard continually slipped into the lane around screens and froze Utah’s bigs, knocking down midrange jumpers with precision and touch, on his way to 33 second half points on 12-of-23 shooting.
“(Westbrook) stopped and popped. He kept the tempo going. He was himself in the fast break and open court,” George said. “Russ did a really good job of just playing the game. Whatever they did, he did the opposite. He countered. He was special.”
“I hit a couple shots in the midrange, then a couple at the rim just trying to mix it up,” George continued. “They’re going to give those midranges up. We’ve gotta take those.”
Those 33 were part of a 45-point, 15-rebound, 7-assist night for the NBA’s reigning MVP, as both he and George, who scored 21 of his 34 after halftime, both played the entire second half. That duo’s shot-making was impeccable over the final 24 minutes of play, as they accounted for 54 of the Thunder’s 66 second half points during the 61-28 blitz the Thunder used to completely flip the script of the game, and possibly the series.
“Our team did a good job of staying together through it all,” Westbrook said. “It’s key for us to stay in attack mode, miss or make. Tonight those shots went down. It was the difference in the game.”
As an in-game adjustment on the other end of the floor, Donovan told his team to start switching everything 1-through-5, meaning that at times guards were having to front big men, but that strategy baited one-on-one play by the Jazz and prevented rolls to the rim or kick outs for open three-pointers. As a result, Utah scored just 43 points in the second half, including 18 points in the paint, and shot just 5-of-22 from behind the arc after halftime.
Isolated Thunder defenders held up across the board, including Alex Abrines who had one of the defining sequences in the comeback. Utah intentionally forced a switch to get their dynamo guard Donovan Mitchell in front of Abrines, but as he drove left towards the lane, Abrines got a little boost by the hand of Steven Adams which gave him the extra elevation needed to block Mitchell’s floater.
The ball squirted out into the arms of Westbrook, who pushed the pace in transition with Abrines running along his right side. Westbrook played it perfectly, creating the angle to hit Abrines in the corner for three that swished perfectly through the net.
The defense, including a plus-4 rebounding edge in the second half, was a result of a purity of energy from the Thunder for the vast majority of the second half. It started with a speech from veteran point guard Raymond Felton in the locker room at halftime, asking the team if they wanted to go home or they wanted to keep fighting. The latter option won the day.
“We just never quit,” George said. “We just never got down on ourselves regardless of the lead that they built, the shots they were making. We felt we could surge back, and we did.”
At around the time the Thunder’s run started at the 8:32 mark when it was down 71-46, the Thunder’s bench all rose to its feet. Through Westbrook’s game-tying three-pointer towards the end of the third quarter and his three-pointer that gave the Thunder the lead for good with 6:17 to go, all the way to the final buzzer, this Thunder team stayed connected, played with a relentless effort and was spurred on by one of the most incredible playoff crowds in Oklahoma City history.
“You play until there’s nothing on the clock,” George said to the media after the game. “You guys have seen that on a nightly basis with one of the best to do that in Russ.”
“This probably is one of the best games I’ve been a part of in the playoffs or regular season,” said forward Carmelo Anthony. “To be down 25 points and to come back the way we did today just tells you about our team, the type of group that we have, the mentality we have tonight.”
Highlights: Thunder Completes Comeback Win
By the Numbers
32-7 – The Thunder’s run to end the third quarter, turning a 25-point deficit into a tie game in the fourth quarter
36.4 – Utah’s shooting percentage in the second half, aided by a Thunder defensive effort that forced 5-of-22 three-point shooting
79 – Combined points for Russell Westbrook and Paul George, who hit 7-of-15 three-point attempts and combined for 23 rebounds
The Last Word
“I’ve been in the league for 13 years and it’s probably one of the most amazing games I’ve ever been a part of. To be in and feel that feeling, that atmosphere. The crowd was amazing. My teammates were amazing.” – point guard Raymond Felton