Thunder Leaves It All on the Floor – OKC 91, UTA 96
By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | firstname.lastname@example.org
SALT LAKE CITY – Over a single possession that spanned 50 seconds span to close the game, the Thunder had 6 cracks at a bucket that would have either tied the game or cut the Utah Jazz lead to 1 point. It was a frenetic sequence, as the Thunder relentlessly chased down loose balls and slapped out offensive rebounds, yet every single shot hit iron until Paul George’s three-pointer through massive contact by Rudy Gobert, which fell short with no whistle.
That was how the Thunder’s season ended on Friday night, in a 96-91 loss to the Jazz in Game 6 on the road, coming inches close to forcing overtime and potentially a Game 7 back in Oklahoma City. Being that close to tasting one more postseason opportunity was hard to swallow, but this united Thunder squad lost tonight as it won all season long: together.
“We fought in a lot of different ways to give ourselves a chance and we had to make a lot of hustle plays to give ourselves a chance,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “We wish a couple of those (shots) could have gone down, but they didn’t.”
Led by the unbridled perseverance of Russell Westbrook, the Thunder wouldn’t go down easily and pushed Utah to the limit. Westbrook scored 31 of his game-high 46 points in the second half, ensuring through continual drives to the middle of the floor, three-pointers from out top and the motor to never say die, that his team would have a chance. Westbrook hit 7 three-pointers in the game, including a monster one off the catch to make it 92-91 Utah with 1:28 to go, capping an 18-6 run to put serious game pressure on the Jazz.
“We got stops. Russ made big play after big play, kept us in there,” said forward Paul George. “It just came down to scrappiness and being able to find a way to jump back into the game.”
“Every night I play man I leave it on the floor. I’ll continue to say this every time I play. I’m not saying it for my health. That’s just how I play,” Westbrook said. “Win, lose or draw, I leave it on the floor everything I have. Sometimes you come up short, sometimes you win. That’s my job to bring my energy, my aggressiveness throughout the game for our team.”
On the ensuing possession, a broken play resulted in a pass to Utah’s Derrick Favors with just 4 seconds on the shot clock, and the power forward hit a jumper from just beyond the elbow. That’s when the Thunder’s seemingly endless possession began. Paul George was fouled on what looked like a three-point attempt, but the foul was ruled on the floor. Then after a side out of bounds, Westbrook sliced into the lane and his driving layup missed. Steven Adams grabbed one of his 8 offensive rebounds in the game and got it back to George, who missed a three-pointer.
Another long rebound resulted in a Westbrook missed three-pointer, and then the ball squirted loose again to the Thunder, who called timeout. On the inbounds play, George attacked the paint but his runner missed, and Westbrook had another chance from behind the three-point line that bounced off iron and off a Jazz fingertip and out of bounds.
The Thunder had one more chance with 24 seconds to go, and when George isolated against Gobert at the top of the key he pump-faked, baiting Gobert to go flying through the air and into George’s space. George absorbed the contact on his way up in the air and his shot fell well short, but there was no foul call. The Jazz picked up the loose ball, hit two free throws, and confetti rained down. That was it.
“Our team did a good job of sticking together throughout the whole game,” Westbrook said.
“We got some shots that we wanted at the end of the game, we just weren’t able to make the one that we needed.”
The final frenzied sequence didn’t completely determine the outcome though. The two teams just kept on trading haymakers for the entire first half, setting the table for a tie ball game heading into the 2nd half. First it was a 12-0 Thunder run midway through the first quarter, as it held the Jazz to one shot on just about every possession and switched one through five for large stretches to force tough passes over the top.
Towards the end of the first quarter and at the beginning of the second however, the Jazz responded with a 12-2 run as the Thunder went scoreless for 3:43 of game play. The Thunder’s defense kicked back in and the offense revved up again with Westbrook on the court to jump out to a 9-point lead with a 13-3 run midway through the period. Then, towards the end of the half, the Jazz ripped off another 12-2 burst to tie it just before the break.
All the back and forth revealed one subtlety. With the Jazz uncomfortable on offense for much of the first half, the Thunder missed an opportunity to blow its leads out further beyond 9 points and take control of the game. Instead, some lapses on defense and stagnant offense left the door open for the Jazz.
The home team took it. In the third quarter, the Jazz ripped off 37 points to just 29 for the Thunder, behind a sensational performance from point guard Donovan Mitchell, who scored 22 of his 38 in the period. Mitchell hit 5-of-8 three-pointers on the night, and the ones that came in the third quarter were mostly due to the Thunder not getting their feet above the three-point line in their on-ball pressure of the dynamic scorer. Instead of forcing Mitchell to put the ball on the floor and finish over length, the Thunder allowed him to dribble into three-pointers with late contests, and it hurt the Thunder badly.
“There were a couple times when we were trying to load up on (Mitchell) and on the ball we need to do a better job of making him drive it,” Donovan said.
The Jazz’s 21-11 run to start the third quarter broke the game open, and the lead swelled all the way to 13 midway through the fourth quarter. At 86-73 with 7:04 to go, the Thunder could have hit a breaking point. Instead, behind its fearless leader, it gave one last gasp charge. Westbrook hit a pull-up jumper to start the run before Jerami Grant hit a three-pointer to make it a single-digit game again.
After a long rebound, Westbrook pushed the pace and scored an and-one in transition, then found Steven Adams on a lob dunk. In transition, George hit a streaking Raymond Felton in the corner for a three-pointer, then Westbrook found Adams for a little layup at the rim to make it 90-88 with 2:44 to go. Mitchell scoring on a ridiculous scooping layup for the Jazz as a response, then Westbrook hit his final three-pointer about a minute later to set up the pivotal sequence to end the game, the series and the season for the Thunder.
In many ways it was a fitting end for this Thunder group, who fought together and banded as one all season long, led by a captain who plays his heart out every night. The team was inconsistent this year, and was tonight as well, on both ends of the floor. It gave itself a chance to win and came up short, but is optimistic about the future, and what continued work in the summer will hold.
“There’s a great optimism in my opinion of what the team could end up being moving forward,” Donovan said. “I think there’s a great opportunity for us to learn and grow from this and get better from it.”
Highlights: Game 6 at Utah
By the Numbers
23-13 – The differential in free throw attempts in the game in the Jazz’s favor
37 – Points allowed by the Thunder in the third quarter, including 22 to Donovan Mitchell
46 – Points for Russell Westbrook in the game, including 31 in the second half alone, thanks in part to 7 made three-pointers
The Last Word
“Our guys came in and competed and battled… It’s been a great group to work with. I really appreciate all of these guys. What I really appreciate is when you bring a new group of people together you never know how it’s going to be in the locker room and how they’ll get along. Those guys did a great job.” - Head Coach Billy Donovan
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 28, 2018