Jae Crowder had just hit back-to-back 3s, and the sound of the ball swishing through the net was louder than ever inside a silenced Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. The Jazz’s lead was 25—the largest of the game, and seemingly a foreboding death knell for the Thunder’s playoff appearance.
But when Paul George grabbed the final rebound with 18 seconds left in the game, he let the time run out with the 107-99 win in hand. Russell Westbrook had 45 points on 39 shots (30-freaking-9) and George had 34 points, while Carmelo Anthony might as well have been a fan sitting courtside as the Thunder claimed victory from the jaws of defeat to keep their playoffs going. We’re going to a Game 6 in Utah. Here are three takeaways from the most important comeback in Thunder history.
Carmelo Anthony Was a Factor … From the Bench
At the 7:19 mark in the third quarter, Melo exited the game with OKC down 71-53. His team either considered the benching to be a boost or playing without him woke them up.
The Thunder went on a 25-7 run to end the quarter that illustrated the height of their ceiling and how good they could be without Melo. The game was tied at the end of three, the crowd was re-energized, and the Thunder had all the momentum going into the final frame. An entire season of takes about how bad Melo was for the Thunder crystallized and were proved correct in one quarter.
His benching is the reason they won, as the Thunder undeniably benefited from some addition by subtraction to complete the comeback. Melo would have stifled it with a missed 3 or an isolation. I want to congratulate Billy Donovan for committing to the Melo-less lineup down the stretch, but the move should have been made a while ago.
Rudy Gobert’s Absence
OKC’s smartest move in this elimination game was getting Rudy Gobert in foul trouble. The Jazz were up 10 late in the third quarter when Gobert picked up his fifth foul and had to exit the game. It was like the Melo effect in reverse. The Thunder were able to penetrate far more often, and George was able to dash to the rim like a reindeer with new life.
All series long, Gobert sent Russ descending into madness, with Westbrook flailing at the rim, unable to finish, or settling for bad jumpers. Mitchell led the scoring surge for the Jazz in games 1 through 4, but Gobert was poised to be the reason they were going to win in five games. Foul trouble was his kryptonite, and by the time he returned to the game with eight minutes left, the Thunder had earned a one-point lead. If you can’t go around the best defender in the league, try taking him out.
Playoff P and Russ Showed Up
The Thunder had to make shots to engineer the comeback. No absence of Gobert or Melo was going to be enough if Russ and Co. kept laying bricks. They didn’t. George saw a wide-open runway to the rim and made the most out of it, and Playoff P came back to life.
After making only two 3s in the first half, the Thunder drained seven 3s in the second half; Russ attempted seven 3s and made five of them—only the second time he’s ever made as many or more in a playoff game. At one point, the Thunder were shooting 20 percent from 3 and a frigid 33 percent from the field, but they managed to finish 43.8 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3. The Jazz hadn’t strayed from their game plan. In fact, this was the plan: force Russ take pull-up midrange jumpers. The problem is that, for the first time all series, he was making them consistently. Yes, he took 39 shots, but he made 17 of them. The question going forward is can Westbrook and George combine for nearly 80 points again? To force a Game 7, they might have to.