After the Oklahoma City Thunder authored one of the most stunning comebacks in NBA postseason history to win Game 5 on Wednesday, Donovan Mitchell told an Oklahoma City fan as he exited the court that he would “see y’all next year” — an indication that he and the Utah Jazz planned to take care of their business back at home on Friday, and wouldn’t be making a return trip to Oklahoma for a deciding Game 7.
It appears he is a man of his word.
The rookie continued the remarkable start to his postseason career, scoring 38 points to lead the Jazz to a 96-91 win in Game 6 at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Friday night, finishing off a 4-2 win in the best-of-seven series and eliminating the fourth-seeded Thunder in six games. After the Jazz lost starting point guard Ricky Rubio to a hamstring injury in the first quarter, and after starting the game ice-cold — Utah was 11-for-34 from the field as a team with 3 1/2 minutes to go in the opening half — Mitchell took over, scoring 22 points in the third quarter alone in an unconscious display of shot-making (he drilled 10 straight at one point) that breathed new life into the Jazz, knocked the Thunder back on their heels, and helped Utah get some separation from Oklahoma City after a tight first half.
The message that Jazz coach Quin Snyder had for his prized rookie after a rocky start? “We’re going to win this game and you’re going to go off,” Mitchell recalled after the game. “When you got a coach telling you that, your mindset changes, and maybe you don’t need to be nervous anymore.”
They’d need every last point of the cushion that Mitchell’s bolstered bravery could provide. Behind a second straight furious second half performance by Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City clawed all the way back to within one possession in the final minute of play … and might have had a chance to tie it, too, had Paul George gotten the benefit of the doubt from the referees on a play that’s going to be replayed, reviewed and dissected for a loooooooong time:
With 24.7 seconds left in regulation and the Jazz clinging to a 94-91 lead — and I do mean clinging, after Utah somehow dodged a hail of last-minute bullets that featured two missed shots within five feet of the basket, three missed 3-pointers, and four possession-extending offensive rebounds in a 30-second span — Oklahoma City inbounded the ball looking for a bucket. George took a handoff from center Steven Adams and dribbled to his right, heading into the middle of the floor as Adams set a screen.
George pulled up from several feet behind the line, getting Jazz center Rudy Gobert to jump into the air to contest a potential game-tying 3-pointer. But George was only pump-faking, and after getting Gobert into the air, he re-set and raised up to shoot, leaning into Gobert, absorbing the contact and putting up his shot.
Whatever your thoughts on that particular flavor of play, it’s one we’ve seen whistled as a personal foul countless times. Even Snyder seemed to think Gobert had gone over the line:
check out quinn snyder put his hands on his head on that PG three. even he knew it was a foul pic.twitter.com/0RuCmXgkPg
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) April 28, 2018
In this instance, though … no whistle. No foul. Well, no foul call, at least.
Official Ron Garretson statement on the non-call on Gobert: "Rudy Gobert jumped to the right of Paul George. Our determination was Rudy would not have made contact with Paul had he not jumped sideways into Gobert’s legal space. We determined this to be a non-call."
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 28, 2018
George’s shot was an airball that fell right into Mitchell’s hands under the basket. In their collective confusion over not getting that call, the Thunder seemed to straight-up forget that they were trailing by three with less than 24 seconds remaining in a closeout game, and that they had no timeouts remaining, so they really needed to foul.
The Jazz wound up running the clock all the way down to 6.9 seconds before OKC could foul Mitchell. The rookie made his pair, pushing the lead to five, propelling Utah to a second-round date with the No. 1-seeded Houston Rockets, and closing the door on a disappointing, underwhelming experiment of a year in Oklahoma City.
“I don’t want to say [the no-call on Gobert] ended our season, because Paul could have gone up there and made one out of three, two out of three — who knows what would have happened?” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “But I do know that I would’ve liked to have had Paul George at the free-throw line shooting [three] free throws with 20 seconds left in the game, with an opportunity to get a stop and try to send it into overtime, or maybe get the ball back. And we weren’t afforded that opportunity.”
That the Thunder were even within striking distance in the final minute came courtesy of another monster second half from Westbrook, who scored 31 of his game-high 46 points — on 18-for-43 shooting, and 7-for-19 from 3-point range — because his top-billed teammates didn’t offer much support. (Westbrook also added 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals in 44 total minutes.)
Carmelo Anthony’s nightmare series concluded in humiliating fashion. The 33-year-old forward again found himself ruthlessly targeted in the pick-and-roll by Mitchell during Utah’s third-quarter run, and again failed to make Utah pay on the other end, scoring just seven points on 3-for-7 shooting with three rebounds.
The Jazz outscored Oklahoma City by 19 points in Anthony’s 25 1/2 minutes of floor time; the Thunder outscored Utah by 14 points in the 22 1/2 minutes Anthony spent on the bench. This was not coincidence or random chance; this is how things went, all series long.
Carmelo Anthony on-court vs. the Jazz: 194 minutes, -58
The Thunder with Carmelo Anthony off-court vs. the Jazz: 94 minutes, +32
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) April 28, 2018
Here’s where we remind you that Anthony, who essentially couldn’t do a single thing in this series, holds a $27.9 million player option for next season.
George, on the other hand, entered Friday having had a very good series, playing an instrumental role in OKC’s wins in Games 1 and 5, and averaging nearly 29 points per game on 45/41/88 shooting splits. In Game 6, though, George seemed off-beat and out of step all night long, mustering just eight points on abysmal 2-for-16 shooting and mitigating his eight assists with six turnovers.
On Wednesday, with the season on the line, George came up enormous when Oklahoma City needed him most. On Friday, George didn’t make a shot from the field over the final 40 minutes of game time. And here’s where we remind you that George hits unrestricted free agency on July 1.
Here's Paul George's full quote on the possibility of returning to the Thunder: "It’s too soon. I would love to remain a Thunder, but that’s what the summer is for. So, we’ll address that in the summer." pic.twitter.com/PBiUT1lD2y
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 28, 2018
With George and Anthony providing next to nothing, and the season in the balance, Russ stepped into fill the void the only way he’s ever known, or ever will: by attacking with every erg of energy he’s got, and by putting up shot after shot after shot.
Westbrook went toe-to-toe with Mitchell in that explosive third quarter, scoring 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting to keep the Thunder within hailing distance even as Mitchell flat-out couldn’t miss. And after Utah pushed the lead back up to 13 with 7:04 to go in the fourth, he ignited another run, scoring six points in a little over a minute around a Jerami Grant 3-pointer to cut the deficit to five.
He took a borderline-unbelievable 30-foot bomb off an offensive rebound with 2:05 to go and the Jazz up four; he instantly shook that off and drilled a left-corner 3 off a feed from Raymond Felton to make it 92-91 Jazz with 1:28 to go, nearly stopping the hearts of every man, woman and child in Salt Lake City. He just couldn’t get OKC over the hump, though. After Derrick Favors drilled an 18-footer that probably stands as the biggest shot of his career to push the lead back to three with 1:08 remaining, Oklahoma City had six straight shots that could have either gotten them within one or tied the game, and came up empty on all of them.
Yes, the George/Gobert no-call is a tough beat, but Donovan was right to stop short of saying it ended their season. From the inability to tamp down Utah’s pick-and-roll game midway through the series, to Donovan waiting too long to curb Melo’s minutes and unwillingness to vaporize them in a must-win game, to the lack of complementary contributions from a threadbare rotation cannibalized by the offseason moves to import George and Anthony, to George’s catastrophically timed detachment, the 2017-18 Thunder died a death by a thousand cuts, many of them self-inflicted. The most painful ones, though, came from a guy in gold wearing No. 45 who sure as hell doesn’t look like many rookies we’ve seen in quite a while.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2018
Donovan Mitchell is the 3rd rookie over the last 35 seasons with multiple 30-point games in a series, joining Alonzo Mourning (2 in 1993 1st round) and Michael Jordan (2 in 1985 1st round).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2018
Donovan Mitchell averaged 28.5 points per game against Thunder.
Here are the most points per game by a rookie in a playoff series since 1964: pic.twitter.com/NGJRyePYw3
— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) April 28, 2018
With Mitchell carrying the scoring and shot-creation burden, bigs Gobert and Favors combining for 25 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks and three steals, and the tandem of Joe Ingles (12 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and little-used reserve Alec Burks (11 huge points in 17 minutes off the bench) helping pick up the slack of the injured Rubio, Utah had just enough on both ends of the floor to outlast Oklahoma City. Next up for the surging Mitchell and likely Defensive Player of the Year honoree Gobert: a date with James Harden, Chris Paul and one of the NBA’s highest-scoring team in what sure seems like it could be a styles-make-fights kind of classic.
We’ve learned this much, by now: that Mitchell will be ready for that fight, ready to stare down the presumptive MVP and one of the greatest point guards of his generation, and try to prove that this is his time. So far, so good.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Thunder as the West’s No. 3 seed. They finished fourth. The Portland Trail Blazers finished third. We regret the error.
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