Thunder Stars Orchestrate Historic Comeback, Force a Game 6 with 107-99 Win

April 26th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

This is not what the Jazz’s defensive game plan is supposed to look like. (Layne Murdoch via thunder.com)

Russell Westbrook and Paul George would like to keep playing basketball.

Oklahoma City’s two stars staved off elimination by leading a furious second-half comeback and defeating the Utah Jazz, 107-99. The Thunder trailed by as many as 25 points, but a thrilling outburst by their two stars and a change in defensive strategy allowed them to turn the game and narrow Utah’s series lead to 3-2.

For the first 28 minutes, Utah simply picked apart the Thunder defense, cutting through the paint with their passing and draining one open three after another. Jae Crowder knocked down six 3-pointers on his way to a playoff career high 27 points, and the clicking Jazz appeared to be on their way to closing out the Thunder and advancing to the second round for a second consecutive season. And then, the wheels came off.

“We stopped playing defense. We stopped getting back,” said Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s rookie star who had his fifth straight 20-point game (23) in as many playoff outings. “Our offense got stagnant. They made adjustments and we didn’t make the right adjustments back.

“We’ll watch the film and figure out what went wrong.”

He can start by watching #0 and #13 in blue.

Westbrook finally broke through what had been a stingy Jazz defense, putting up 33 of his 45 points after had established that game-high 25-point lead. He and George combined for 30 of the Thunder points in a 32-7 run that the home team used to close the gap by the end of the third quarter. Then, seconds into the final frame, Westbrook scored off an offensive rebound to give OKC its first lead since the early minutes of the game, 80-78.

The pair of All-Stars were hardly done. By game’s end, Westbrook (45) and George (34) accounted for nearly three fourths of OKC’s points, and had powered the third largest comeback win in playoff history.

“Just staying aggressive man, just trying to pick my spots,” Westbrook said after the game. “Same shots I’ve been getting, just gotta concentrate on making them.”

Westbrook stayed on message that his breakthrough was essentially a question of shot variance. But, that’s not entirely true. He was still 7-for-18 on his midrange pullups. Utah will live with that. The Jazz know that he will hit a certain percentage of those, and that’s still absolutely the shot they’re willing to concede him. What they can’t live with is letting the superstar guard get to the basket, which they did far too often in Game 5.

As Mitchell pointed out, the Jazz started letting him get to places they previously had been cutting off with smart defense. Their live ball turnovers1 led to run-outs for transition buckets. In the halfcourt defense, they didn’t contain well in their “drop” pick-and-roll coverage, letting Westbrook split the defense or just get by the help. And then there was the tip-in, where Utah failed to keep Westbrook off the glass. In other words, it wasn’t Utah’s defensive scheme that failed them on Russ’ 45-point night; it was the players’ execution of it.

Similar mistakes led to several open looks for PG, who had 21 of his own during the 61-28 shellacking that took place over the game’s final 20 minutes. His primary defender, usually Joe Ingles, got caught on screens, or he would wind off the screen into tough pull-up jumpers. The Thunder generally get better results when their possessions go through George, and Utah simply didn’t put up enough resistance or stay in their game plan.

The same was true on offense, where Utah forgot its principles when the Thunder employed a switching defense in the second half. Jazz coach Quin Snyder didn’t like his team’s offensive choices when the Thunder defense got aggressive.

“We were fighting it, but we didn’t exec as well as we needed to offensively against the switch,” Snyder said. “We didn’t do what we needed to do.”

The coach further explained that the Jazz have a list of things they do to generate offense against a switching opponent, but that guys didn’t execute that list, instead taking the first shot that came along — often long, contested shots.

“As much as anything, we still need to try to get the ball into the paint and attack the rim,” Snyder continued. “Often times that’ll (result in) a kick-out for the next guy, and that’s how we need to play. We settled a little bit for some jumpers versus the switch.”

During the stretch he was describing, Utah rarely moved the ball from side to side, which is a big staple for them and how they often succeed at catching defenses off balance. Ball movement and player movement slowed, and Utah mostly attacked 1-on-everybody. Mitchell got going in the fourth quarter to give the beleaguered Jazz some much needed water in the offensive desert, but even then, he was mostly attacking solo and not getting others involved. Frankly, it didn’t look like the Jazz basketball that Mitchell and his mates had been playing for three and a half games prior to that.

And, it wasn’t enough. Even with Mitchell finding some late success of the dribble, Westbrook and George alone outscored the entire Jazz team in the fourth, 22-21.

Simply put, the Jazz stopped being themselves for a quarter and a half, and as a result the Thunder are back in the series.

But there’s some silver lining there, too. It’s not like OKC busted Utah’s scheme; the Jazz just (largely) stopped executing it. When Utah sees the Game 5 film, players will easily discern the difference between the execution that put them up 71-46 and they way they played as their lead evaporated. They know how to play like a team, and they just didn’t do it for 20 minutes. It’s correctable, and the Jazz should be able to give themselves a chance when the series resumes on Friday night in Salt Lake City.

It will also help if they can keep their big men out of foul trouble. Both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, keys to the defensive game plan, had their playing time cut short by fouls. Gobert’s absence especially stung for Utah, as their defense was stifling — 89 points per 100 possessions — with the French center on the court. But he picked up a fourth foul while applying pressure on a Carmelo Anthony pull-up, and consequently found himself glued to the pine.

After the game, Gobert called that fourth personal an “invisible” foul, and the call riled up the Utah fan base since the contest was obviously clean at the apex of Melo’s shot release. But check out the sideline angle on the play: it appears as though what the ref2 saw was contact on Melo’s elbow or forearm as the former All-Star was going up. From this angle, it looks like Gobert might have indeed made contact before his clean contest up top.

Arm contact as Melo goes up? The ref thought so.

If Rudy tagged Melo on the arm, then he doesn’t really have a legitimate beef. If you watch the play from this same sideline angle, it not only looks like there was contact on the forearm, but Melo’s shooting motion appears to push Gobert’s hand up. It’s not 100% conclusive, but there’s enough there to understand why a ref would blow the whistle.

Either way, Gobert wasn’t happy about that particular call, but took responsibility for allowing himself to be limited in a pivotal game.

“That’s on me. I gotta be smarter and avoid those first three fouls and don’t put my team in this position.”

Crowder checked in for Gobert and promptly hit back-to-back threes, his fifth and sixth of the contest, and that’s where Utah established the 25-point lead. But then the defensive mistakes started, and George was able to get deep enough on consecutive plays to hang two quick fouls on Favors, forcing him to sit down as well.

“It’s a different feeling when you don’t have big fella back there,” Mitchell said of the defensive letdown after Gobert was forced to the bench. “But even so, it’s hard when you put all the pressure on him. We’ve got to play better defense (on the perimeter).”

Snyder rolled the dice when he put Gobert back in just four minutes later. After a minute on the court, he was called for an offensive foul, hooking the defender as he moved into the lane on a hectic Jazz possession.

Gobert still managed a double-double (11 points & 10 rebounds) in limited minutes, but Utah clearly missed his paint presence as they struggled to stop the Thunder’s stars. Ingles had 16, and Ricky Rubio put up a near triple-double despite struggling with his shot: 10 points, 12 boards, seven assists, and 4-for-12 shooting.

No Thunder player outside of Russ & PG reached double figures, but it hardly mattered since those two accounted for 79 combined points. Melo scored seven, although he spent most of the fourth quarter on the sideline as the Thunder opted instead for Alex Abrines, who was better suited to support OKC’s game-altering switches on defense.

Utah will get another shot at an elimination game on Friday night in Salt Lake City. Should they win, they move on to face Houston, who defeated Minnesota on Wednesday night. A loss puts them back in Bricktown for a Sunday Game 7 on the road. That makes Friday a virtual must-win for both teams.

At least one Jazz man likes his chances. 

“I mean, we’re going home, so we’ll be fine,” Crowder averred from the Game 5 podium.

Westbrook’s counter: “We know what we gotta do.”

One of them will be right.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *