5 min read

Wednesday Bolts: 4.25.18

Nick Gallo previews tonight’s must-win Game 5: “This isn’t where the Thunder thought it would be heading into a Game 5 at home against the Utah Jazz, with its back against the wall. Needing to win the next three games of the series in order to advance is obvious, but it’s more of a matter of how those games are won, starting with this first one on Wednesday night. “Playoff games are won each possession,” point guard Russell Westbrook said. On road in Salt Lake City, the Thunder didn’t get the job done of regaining home court after abdicating it in Game 2 at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder still has a chance to wrestle that game back on the road on Friday, but to even generate that as a possibility, it must control emotions and momentum for all 48 minutes in Game 5. Within the course of the game against the feisty, flowing Jazz, there are inevitable tasks the team will encounter. How the players harness their brimming energy into the execution of their duties on the defensive end will be key.”

Brett Dawson on the Thunder being optimistic in the face of elimination: “No matter how bleak the regular season got for the Thunder, the message rarely varied. This was a team built for the postseason, a team that would figure it out. It wasn’t a matter of if the light bulb would come on, the Thunder insisted, but when. It’s getting awfully dark now, but Russell Westbrook will tell you he remains convinced. His team trails the Utah Jazz 3-1 in a best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series, but ask Westbrook if he still he still has that regular season certainty that things will turn in the Thunder’s favor, and he hardly hesitates. “Always,” Westbrook said on Tuesday. “Never change.”

Sam Amick (USA Today) on how the Thunder got here: “The Utah Jazz, who three months ago found themselves nine games under .500 and nowhere near playoff position in the NBA’s brutal Western Conference, are on the verge of surging into the second round of the postseason. The Jazz’s 113-96 win in Game 4 over Oklahoma City on Monday night in Salt Lake City was a clinic on the physical and psychological fronts, as the Thunder’s star-studded squad struggled mightily to contain Utah’s united core. Here’s a look at three key reasons that the Thunder, now trailing 3-1 with Game 5 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, are on the brink of elimination.”

Tyler Conway (B/R) on Russell Westbrook being fined/given a technical for a Game 4 altercation: “The NBA announced Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook will not be suspended for Game 5 of his team’s first-round series against the Utah Jazz after he left the designated area during an altercation late in Monday night’s Game 4 loss. However, he was fined $10,000 and assessed a technical foul for his role in the altercation with Rudy Gobert, per Royce Young of ESPN.com. The league clearly determined a referee had checked Westbrook into the game when Raymond Felton and Gobert started an on-court shouting match following a hard Felton foul. Steven Adams, who was also slated to check into the game, did not leave the area to go toward the altercation.”

Nate Wolf (NBA Math) explains the problems with Westbrook’s defense: “Russ, as always, has rewarded his teammates’ extra defensive effort with superhuman offense. And they’ve needed it. The Thunder’s attack has long been anemic without its catalyst in the game. But even with Westbrook, the machine has been feeble in this year’s first-round series against the Utah Jazz. The Thunder have scored a lowly 101.1 points per 100 possessions—no surprise given Utah’s stingy defense, led by the indomitable Rudy Gobert, and some bricky shooting performances from Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. But their defense is a bigger problem. The Thunder cannot stop anything at the other end, where the Jazz have poured in 108.7 points per 100 possessions. And Russ is one of the main culprits. It starts in transition. Westbrook’s unwillingness to run toward his own basket is his most egregious habit. He’s often the last man back on Utah’s run-outs, and even when he’s not, he rarely makes an effort to stop the ball. He’ll instead watch aimlessly as Ricky Rubio floats by.”

Andrew Sharp (SI) on Paul George’s free agency getting interesting: “George, for his part, has promised that playoff success or failure won’t make the decision for him. “I’m not going to let the playoffs or how we finish this season persuade or indicate where I’m going to this offseason,” he said in April. “I’m going to put everything into this, and again, I can definitely see myself being here.” We’ll see. I understand that he won’t let two weeks in April decide the next several years of his career, but if George were on the fence, a first-round loss will make it tougher to sell OKC as a title contender this summer. In any case, that’s irrelevant for now. As far as free agency is concerned, this series is more interesting for the ways it has helped clarify exactly what type of star Paul George is.”

Ryan Phillips (The Big Lead) on Melo’s career essentially being over: “In 78 games this season, Anthony averaged career-lows in points (16.2), assists (1.3), steals (0.6) and minutes (32.1). He also shot career-worst percentages from the field (40.4) and free throw line (76.7). Meanwhile, his PER dropped to a career-low 12.78. You want more? Because I’ve got more. His Value Over Replacement Player dropped to an abysmal -1.1 this season, which ranked 537th in the NBA. Yes, it was 537th out of the 540 players who qualified. Anthony’s Box Plus/Minus (-3.8) ranked 396th, and his Win Shares Per 48 minutes (0.77) ranked 305th. So Anthony isn’t an inefficient, ineffective player, he’s also a just a bad one these days. He’s too slow to defend consistently and — try as he might — he’s not quick enough to beat guys off the dribble one-on-one consistently anymore. If he was a dead-eye 3-point shooter, maybe he could have some value, but he hit just 35.7 percent from deep this season.”

Grant Hughes (B/R) picks OKC as a potential landing spot for Avery Bradley this summer: “Paul George is probably a goner in free agency, which means the Thunder will have a void on the wing—a void Bradley could fill. With Russell Westbrook running things again sans a quality second option (unless you consider Carmelo Anthony a quality second option), Bradley could get his fill of good looks at the 2. In the extremely unlikely event Anthony exercises his early termination option and leaves $27.9 million on the table, Bradley really would become the No. 2 scoring threat. Plus, he and Andre Roberson could combine to become one of the most suffocating defensive wing combos in the league… Plus, the Thunder have been interested for a while. Bradley could shine here, and the fit just works—as long as he’s willing to take the taxpayer’s MLE.”

Around the League: The Warriors eliminated the Spurs…. Meeting with Kawhi Leonard is atop the Spurs’ offseason priorities…. Is this the end of an era for the Spurs?…. The Sixers eliminated the Heat…. The Sixers’ moment has arrived…. Inside Meek Mill’s trip from prison to last night’s Sixers game…. Boston went up 3-2 on Milwaukee…. The latest chapter in the Derek Fisher/Matt Barnes drama.