Russell Westbrook, Paul George fuel season-saving comeback for Thunder
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was sometime during the comeback, maybe after one of the pendulum-swinging 3-pointers, or after a bulldozing drive at the rim -- it all happened so fast it's kind of hard to remember-- but Russell Westbrook bounced back down the court and side-eyed the Utah bench.
"Not tonight," he told them. "Not tonight."
Westbrook was the spark that lit an improbable fire, the Oklahoma City Thunder overcoming a 25-point second-half deficit to shock the Utah Jazz 107-99 in Game 5. Westbrook finished with 45 points on 17-of-39 shooting, with Paul George adding 34 on 12-of-26. No other Thunder player was in double figures.
"It was one of those nights where obviously our bench, our crowd, everyone here in Oklahoma was behind us," Westbrook said. "We needed every bit of it tonight and our guys stepped up."
Up until Westbrook drained back-to-back 3s midway through the third quarter, though, it looked like a death march for the Thunder, a slow, painful crawl to the end, with the final buzzer to be a merciful punctuation on a disappointing season. It was as if the Thunder had accepted their fate, and were resigned to being taken out back and put down.
The Jazz weren't just dominating; they were humiliating the Thunder. Any push by OKC was met with a Jazz barrage in response. The arena was flat. The fans were a mix of sad, frustrated, angry and hopeless. For the first time in a while, the Thunder were on their way to true despair. There were some empty seats in the lower bowl for a playoff game in Oklahoma City -- an unthinkable thing -- and the Thunder were in danger of activating one of the worst fanbase emotions: apathy. Fans were already in early stages of compartmentalizing this season after the Thunder lost both games in Salt Lake, but the performance through 28 minutes or so crystalized it. Light boos scattered throughout the arena as the Jazz poured it on.
It was striking, not because the Thunder were supposed to be better than this, but because it's not how Westbrook figured to go out. It looked as if the Thunder lost their heart. Then the ignition came. And not coincidentally after Utah's Rudy Gobert picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench. The Jazz briefly extended their lead with a couple of 3s, but Westbrook revved his engine. The paint was finally clear, the rim open for business. Westbrook went to work popping a couple from deep to set the tone, and George finished a three-point play. Jazz timeout, lead down to 18.
"We never quit," George said. "I can't pinpoint one thing we did wrong. I think we never got down on ourselves. Regardless of the lead they built and the shots they were making, we felt we could surge back, and we did."
Ekpe Udoh made a layup, and Westbrook responded with a jumper. Before the game, Westbrook went through his routine and was noticeably off. After clanging a series of 3s from the top of the key, he stretched his arms slowly above his head and gave a slight grimace. Something has been off, it seemed, with Westbrook in this series and after he played Game 4 with cupping marks and kinesio tape all over his shoulders, it seemed maybe something was going on. Or maybe whatever it was that was ailing Westbrook was no longer patrolling the paint because of foul trouble.
Westbrook went right to rim again, cutting it to 13. Sensing the shift, Jazz coach Quin Snyder daringly subbed Gobert back in. Gobert made a free throw, and George attacked him straight away, finishing a layup over him as he guarded against a fifth foul. Two free throws by Westbrook cut it to 10, and after an offensive rebound, Gobert was called for his fifth after hooking Alex Abrines making a post move. Some other stuff happened, a George layup, a Westbrook 3, an awesome Donovan Mitchell dunk, but the comeback was finally complete when Westbrook stopped and popped to splash a 3 with 35.9 seconds left in the third to tie the score 78-78. After the shot dropped, Westbrook's unleashed a megawatt snarl that could power a fusion generator.
"I thought Russ did an unbelievable job of taking what they were giving to him," George said. "He just played the game and whatever they did, he did the opposite. He was special."
The duo of Westbrook and George never fully formed throughout the regular season, with Carmelo Anthony a bit of bread heel in a superstar sandwich. But with Anthony sitting for virtually the entire comeback, George and Westbrook played off each other majestically, scoring 39 consecutive points for OKC during one stretch. They finished scoring 60 of the Thunder's final 67 points, and produced the partnership so many thought would blossom this season.
At one point during the third quarter, Anthony was seen agitating to get back into the game. He said it was just his "competitive nature" and desire to be part of such a comeback. But it presented the Melophant in the room as George and Westbrook flourished together within a stretchy, switchy, athletic lineup.
"I think tonight with the magnitude of the game and the excitement to come back, we played off each other very well," Westbrook said.
It was set to be a pathetic end, the sort of thing that happens to a dysfunctional, despondent team, not one that kept saying the right things and claiming it was close to a breakthrough. It was going to be a rebuke of every expectation this Thunder team had. Instead, the Thunder have life again. They can tell themselves for at least another couple of days they're good enough to turn this fully around and bring it back to Oklahoma City for a Game 7.
"Once tomorrow starts, this is over with," coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't look at it like we're carrying any momentum. We've got to go in there and we've got to play better. This is a team that had us down by 25 points.
"We've got to come back and do it again, and this has been this team's greatest challenge, is the consistency to be able to come back the next game and do it again over and over and over. And that's what's going to be required to continue to advance the series."
Westbrook and George both played the entire second half, unusual, particularly for Westbrook, who has done that only one other time in his career (Game 7 against the Warriors in 2016). This was only to force one more game, and the Thunder need to win two more. But they live for another day, and at the very least, avoid the worst condemnation of all -- that they didn't care enough to try.