With 8:34 to go in the third quarter of Wednesday’s Game 5, Jae Crowder took a feed from Ricky Rubio and splashed down his sixth 3-pointer of the game to give the Utah Jazz a 71-46 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. All of the disappointing failings that had sunk the Thunder in Games 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City were rearing their ugly head again, leaving the home crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena frustrated and their team seemingly a scant 20 1/2 minutes away from an ignominious end to a season that had begun with such high hopes. After responding to three straight losses by barely showing up, it looked like it was all over but the shouting.
And then, Russell Westbrook shouted, and suddenly, it wasn’t over at all.
The NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player took responsibility for saving OKC’s season into his own hands and he pulled it off, bum-rushing the Jazz by combining with All-Star running buddy Paul George to score 32 points over the final 8:34 of the third quarter — a career-single-quarter-high 20 for Westbrook, 12 for George — to completely erase Utah’s 25-point lead and head into the final frame all square at 78. The two stars kept the pressure on in the fourth quarter, routinely breaking down Utah’s perimeter defense to get into the lane, get to the foul line, or work their way into open jumpers that they just would not stop canning.
The shell-shocked Jazz never regained their footing after OKC’s third-quarter haymaker, as a pair of dagger jumpers from George and Westbrook in the final two minutes slammed the door shut on a remarkable 107-99 win that kept the Thunder alive and drew them within one victory of evening up the best-of-seven opening-round series. The scene now shifts back to Salt Lake City, where the Jazz can eliminate the Thunder on their home court in Friday’s Game 6 … and where the Thunder will seek their first road win of the series in hopes of returning to Oklahoma City for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday.
The @okcthunder are the third team in the last 15 years to come back from 25+ points down in the second half to win a playoff game, joining the Clippers (2012 at Memphis) and Cavaliers (2017 at Pacers). #ThunderUp
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) April 26, 2018
After days of taking slings and arrows from media members and fans for following up his post-Game 3 insistence that he’d “shut [RickyRubio’s] s— off” by getting blown out in Game 4, Westbrook turned in one of the most amazing halves of his career, drilling five 3-pointers after intermission and scoring 33 of his 45 points (to go with 15 rebounds and seven assists) to completely take control of the game and bring the Thunder back from the brink:
Not sure if this stat is out there yet but over final 20:30 of the game, Westbrook outscored the Jazz 33-28.
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) April 26, 2018
The game-tilting performance put Westbrook in some awfully rarefied air:
Russ, James and Wilt.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 26, 2018
And after going 22-for-58 from the field over the previous three games, George — one of the few Thunder players who stood up in the first half, doing his level best to keep OKC within hailing distance even as Crowder and Joe Ingles bombed 3-pointers against the Thunder’s busted coverage — returned to his Game 1-winning, nickname-granting form on Wednesday.
George proved to be the perfect complement to Westbrook during the Thunder’s rampaging run, a secondary scorer, ball-handler and shot-maker capable helping turn defense into offense to stifle Utah’s attack and fuel OKC’s transition game. He was sensational, finishing with 34 points on 12-for-26 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in a game-high 45 minutes.
With Oklahoma City’s season on the line, Thunder coach Billy Donovan leaned on Westbrook and George for the entire second half, placing all playmaking responsibility in their hands. They rewarded him, handsomely, with every made shot adding a bit more swagger to the rest of the Thunder roster and a few more decibels of fervor into a crowd that had for a while seemed ready to bid farewell to a sort of disappointing team, but who quickly got sucked back in by the All-Stars’ furious flourish:
From 8:30 in the 3rd quarter and onward, the Thunder outscored the Jazz 61-28.
Russell Westbrook and Paul George scored or assisted on all 61 of OKC's points.
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) April 26, 2018
So, how the hell did things change so quickly and so drastically for both teams? Well, one big factor in Oklahoma City’s comeback is who wasn’t on the floor for the bulk of it.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert — the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year and the sport’s premier deterrent to would-be drivers — missed more than half of those final 20-plus minutes with foul trouble after first picking up his fourth foul with 9:23 to go in the third quarter on what looks like an awfully questionable call:
The Jazz were up 21 when Gobert picked up his fourth, bumping him out of the game and sliding power forward Derrick Favors up to the five spot … where he would promptly pick up two more quick fouls, sending him to the bench with 6:42 to go and the Thunder now down 16. Westbrook and George kept attacking during third-string center Ekpe Udoh’s brief appearance, knocking three more points off the lead before Jazz coach Quin Snyder rolled the dice by reinserting Gobert with just over five minutes still remaining in the third, betting that the French rim protector would be able to steer clear of a fifth foul long enough to stem the Thunder tide.
He lost that wager on two fronts. First: Gobert wasn’t defending as attentively as he normally does, wanting to avoid that fifth foul, which allowed OKC to further chip into the lead. Second: Gobert did earn No. 5 after grabbing an offensive rebound, trying to go back up with it, and hooking Thunder defender Alex Abrines on his post move. That sent Gobert to the bench for the rest of the quarter with Utah holding a 10-point lead; after a Westbrook 3-pointer three minutes and 11 seconds later, that lead was gone.
“It’s different without the big fella back there,” Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell (23 points on 9-for-22 shooting, 1-for-7 from 3-point range, five rebounds, three assists, three steals in 40 minutes) said of playing without Gobert, according to Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune. “But even so, it’s hard to put all the pressure on him.”
That’s in part because, while Westbrook and George certainly did began to look at the lane as a launching pad rather than a no-fly zone without Gobert (and, to a lesser extent, Favors) there to patrol the paint, the Jazz also fell apart on the other end of the floor. Utah managed just 28 points on 11-for-36 shooting over the final 20 1/2 minutes of game time, with out-of-rhythm misses and unforced errors (seven turnovers during OKC’s run) giving the Thunder new life at every turn.
The pick-and-roll game that had become the bane of Oklahoma City’s existence over the previous three games dried up without Gobert and Favors there to set screens and spring ball-handlers, largely neutralizing Rubio as an initiator and forcing Utah to rely even more heavily on Mitchell’s talent for shot creation. The result for the Rookie of the Year hopeful: 11 misses in 16 tries over his final 16 1/2 minutes of floor time, as Utah unraveled and Oklahoma City’s onslaught continued.
The other key missing character for most of the comeback effort? Carmelo Anthony. The former Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks star has largely proven an awkward fit since joining the Thunder in a preseason trade, clearly a step or two slower than during his days as an All-NBA-caliber scoring forward, and yet not versatile enough to slide seamlessly into a complementary role. He’s been a defensive liability and he hasn’t been making shots … and with the Thunder down 18 midway through the third, Donovan sat him, preferring to go with the younger, more athletic and defensively gifted Jerami Grant.
The shift paid dividends. In the second half, the lineup of Westbrook, George, Grant, Abrines and Steven Adams outscored Utah by 20 points in just nine minutes of floor time. Another iteration, swapping out Abrines for veteran Corey Brewer, was a plus-4 in four minutes, too.
With the season on the line, the Thunder leaned on Russ, George and long-limbed young athletes who could wreak a little havoc. It’s an equation that has worked before, but one we weren’t sure Donovan would turn to when Oklahoma City really needed it. He did, and while Melo didn’t seem too happy about riding the pine during the comeback effort, it’s tough to argue with the result: a complete sea change in the tone and tenor of the game that muted the Jazz while the Thunder rolled for the first time in a while.
Jazz with Gobert on the floor vs. OKC: 107.0 offensive rating, 96.7 defensive rating, +10.3 net rating
With Gobert off: 106.4 ORtg, 116.1 DRtg, -9.7 NRtg
OKC with Melo vs. Jazz: 97.7 ORtg, 109.5 DRtg, -11.8 NRtg
Melo off: 112.2 ORtg, 100.5 DRtg, +11.7 NRtg
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 26, 2018
“It was win or go home,” Westbrook told reporters after the game. “Regardless of what is going on in the game, you have to give yourself a chance to win, and I thought our guys did a good job of that tonight. They did an amazing job of sticking together.”
In the process, they saved Oklahoma City’s season. Now, the Thunder have to go back to Vivint Smart Home Arena and find a way to force a Game 7. A repeat performance seems like an awful lot to ask of Westbrook and George, but what kind of late-night flight home it’ll be figures to depend heavily on whether or not OKC’s top guns can generate just this sort of superstar production to stave off elimination one more time.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• LaVar Ball predictably pulls sons off Lithuanian squad
• Audio of ‘confidential’ NFL players-owners meeting leaks
• Browns now rumored to take Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen at No. 1
• Pitcher making unlikely comeback after 3 Tommy John surgeries