So That Happened
If we’re being completely honest with one another, I had started writing my Game 5 recap long before the Thunder ever mounted its horse and started the comeback. After scoring 12 points in the second quarter and falling behind by 15 at halftime, followed by the Jazz extending the lead to 25 with 8 minutes remaining in the third, the writing appeared to be on the wall. The Thunder didn’t look engaged and the players seemed distant. I felt pretty confident about the season coming to an end at home in OKC.
After back-to-back three-pointers from Russell Westbrook cut Utah’s lead to 18 with 7:19 to go in the third — forcing Quinn Snyder to call a timeout and waking up a dormant crowd — I wrote in my notes, “Now or never. Run or don’t.” That’s pretty much what the deal was, right? If the Thunder wanted to save the season, there was no more time for waiting. It either happened right then or it didn’t happen at all.
So the guys made it happen.
Rolling with the lineup of Westbrook, Alex Abrines, Paul George, Jerami Grant, and Steven Adams, the Thunder went Super Saiyan and began repeatedly attacking a Jazz defense that was missing Rudy Gobert due to foul trouble. Russ got going from midrange, came unconscious from beyond the arc, and George locked into an aggressive form of attack mode. The five guys on the floor put together perhaps the most impressive stretch of play we’ve seen out of the Thunder all season. It looked like what fans imagined this team could look like in the postseason: smothering defense, outlandish offense.
When Westbrook stopped and popped a deep three to tie the game at 78-78 late in the third quarter — capping a 32-7 run that came out of nowhere like an RKO — it became clear that we were watching something truly special. I mean, listen to the crowd inside Chesapeake Energy Arena:
The Thunder wasn’t losing this game and we all knew it at this exact moment. As Westbrook told the Jazz later on, “Not tonight.”
Although the comeback was epic and potentially series-altering, it’s worth noting again that Gobert was saddled with foul trouble and the Thunder was hitting shots the Jazz are probably comfortable letting them take. Westbrook and George had it going from everywhere — sustaining that level of jump shooting likely isn’t sustainable. That’s exactly what Utah wants OKC’s offense to look like and it wasn’t a tremendous amount different than the offense that generated just 12 points in the second quarter. The only difference was the reigning MVP and Playoff P going into Bananas Nuclear Mode.
But if the Thunder was going to get one at home and force Game 6, I don’t know that anyone could have drawn up a better way for it to happen. Utah had the game/the series won and OKC stole it right back. How the night will ultimately be remembered depends on what happens next but it feels like it could be the catalytic moment needed to save a season on the brink.
Ten men received playing time for the Thunder last night. The overall plus-minus numbers make it hilariously clear who changed the game.
Can you find the five guys that mattered most?
The Westbrook, Abrines, George, Grant, Adams lineup logged approximately 8.5 minutes together, scored 31 points on 64.7 percent shooting, hit 60 percent of their three-point attempts, and outscored the Jazz by 20 during the stretch. Unbelievable.
Billy Donovan needs to go back to this well in Game 6 — getting Gobert into foul trouble again would be a tremendous boost, as well.
Although his teammates were on the floor saving the season, Carmelo Anthony didn’t seem thrilled about being on the bench. He was seen passionately arguing with assistant coach Mo Cheeks during the comeback run and, according to Gabe Ikard (who sits courtside at Thunder home games), the conversation was clearly about Melo wanting back in the game.
Melo discusses the incident after the game: “My competitive nature just took over at that point, wanting to be a part of that atmosphere.”
Despite his pleading, Melo did not return to action until the 7:58 mark of the fourth quarter — OKC leading 88-87 at the time. The Thunder was a +7 with him in the game from that point forward, so he didn’t jump in and ruin anything. Regardless, the bickering with Cheeks wasn’t a good look, even though his explanation of the event was absolutely acceptable. He wanted to play in a big moment, which is not surprising in the least bit.
In the end, Melo contributed just 7 points on 2-of-6 shooting in Game 5, wrapping up as a -6 in 25 minutes. He’s now shooting just 37 percent in the series and 21.4 percent from downtown — going 0-of-8 from deep over the last two games combined. It’s not entirely surprising to see the team flourish with him on the bench, mostly because it’s exactly what a lot of people thought might happen.
But if you’re looking for Billy Donovan to bench Melo in Friday’s Game 6, you should be aware that it’s not going to happen. However, holding his minutes in that 25-26 range would be a start. Playing Grant equal or greater minutes is the tinkering Thunder fans need from the head coach. Doing the same with Alex Abrines and Corey Brewer is also advised.
Russ & Playoff P
OKC outscored the Jazz 66-43 in the second half of Game 5. Russell Westbrook and Paul George outscored them 54-43 by themselves in the final 24 minutes. Two Batmen, no Robin.
Their combined second half shot chart:
That’s 20-of-39 (50.1 percent) from the floor and 6-of-9 (66 percent) from deep. They combined to score 79 total points in the game — 45 for Westbrook and 34 from George. Incredible.
While you would have preferred a win to come in a balanced, sustainable way, the Thunder’s two best players stepped up to the plate and delivered with the season slipping away. Regardless of whether or not they can continue streaking in Game 6 or not, it was a special night that put off any discussions about them playing their last game together.
George’s post-game interview was incredible, by the way. Enough here to breathe renewed life into a fan base that was on life support:
With the Thunder staying alive in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, it’s difficult not to think about how the landscape of the entire series may have changed. Utah had a commanding 3-1 series lead and was up by 25 points in the third quarter — it’s the type of momentum swinging collapse that may just catapult the Thunder to something greater. It could also be just a delay in the inevitable. After all, it’s one win and OKC needs two more to advance.
The problem with trying to recreate the effort is that there are aspects of a 25-point comeback that only happen once in a blue moon for any team. For one, Rudy Gobert’s foul trouble removed him from the contest and opened up the floor tremendously. Secondly, Westbrook and George going nuclear and making everything + combining for 79 points between the two of them is a lot to ask heading into Game 6. It’s going to take a more balanced approach if the Thunder is taking it to Game 7. Billy Donovan & Co. also have to figure out how to score with Gobert on the floor. That’s still very much a thing.
But if there are aspects of the game that can be carried over into the next one, it’s perhaps the shot of confidence that Westbrook injected directly into himself and his team. He got his swagger back, hit the shots he’d been missing all series long, and dealt the Jazz a punishing blow in the process. There’s also an undeniable momentum and energy following the Thunder after a game like that, which, with some luck, will lead to a quick start tomorrow night in Salt Lake City. With Utah fairly young and inexperienced in the postseason, shaking their belief in themselves last night could very well break their spirit moving forward. We’ll soon see just how much it impacts their heads.
Whether the series ends tomorrow or returns to The ‘Peake for Game 7 on Sunday, the Thunder again showed a tiny glimpse of what’s possible when things are working. There have been fleeting moments like these all season long — brief glimmers of elite ability that have been bookended by frustrating, gutless performances. The hope now is that last night is more than the last gasp of a talented, yet deeply flawed, basketball team. The odds are still stacked against OKC, but all of a sudden there’s reason to believe anything is possible.