You know the story already (if you don’t, read Chris’ post-game Views). The Oklahoma City Thunder were dead midway through the third quarter of Game 5. They were still technically breathing, but they trailed by 25 points in an elimination game. A fair number of people had pronounced them dead before the game even started — Wednesday on NBA twitter was spent tearing down Russell Westbrook — and you couldn’t really blame anyone for that. The Thunder has been soundly outplayed the entire series except for their sole win in game 1. Paul George had been quiet except for game 1. Carmelo Anthony looked washed up. Steven Adams couldn’t stay out of foul trouble. Russell Westbrook had shot the ball horribly and was unwilling or unable to go to the rim against Rudy Gobert. No one could stop Donovan Mitchell.
This was the death knell of a both the season and probably this iteration of the Thunder — no way Paul George was passing up Los Angeles for a team that got beat in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. It was time for everyone to home. Nick Collison, please turn off the lights on your way out.
And then the Thunder stormed back, erasing the 25 point deficit in just the 3rd quarter and going on to win in the 4th. Russell Westbrook often gets called “electric”, and on this night he was the defibrillator for a team that played like their hearts had stopped beating until that third quarter explosion. The question now is if Wednesday night can be a turning point in the series for OKC, or if it was merely the last, wild counterpunch of a boxer who’s already lost the fight. After all, that win didn’t seal the series for OKC, or even come close — it merely extended it by two days. And now the Thunder must go into Utah, where they were soundly defeated in games 3 and 4, and pull out another victory just to get to game 7. If the Thunder can play like they did in game 5, they can win two more games, but was that performance sustainable?
At first glance, it’s tempting to say no. The Thunder needed 45 points from Russell Westbrook and 34 from Paul George to win. They were playing at home. Donovan Mitchell managed only 23 points on 22 shots. And the Thunder still were down by 25 in the second half before their comeback win. None of that seems like the basis for success going forward. The Thunder played well at home and got a win when everything went their way. In game 6, the Jazz will be at home, they’ll shoot a little better and the Thunder will shoot a little worse. End of series, on to Houston.
The Thunder will indeed be underdogs in game 6. They have been outplayed for 3 and a half of the 5 games of this series, and they’re on the road. Still, the Thunder did some important things differently in game 5, particularly in the second half, and those things should continue to give the Jazz trouble going forward if the Thunder are smart enough to keep rolling with those things.
1. Less Melo, more Melo
First and foremost, while the Thunder didn’t bench Carmelo Anthony, he did play significantly less minutes and was almost completely removed from the offense. Melo played 25 minutes — after averaging in the high 30’s for the first four games — and took just 6 shots despite entering the night averaging almost 15 shots per game. I don’t think that was necessarily the game plan — Melo took 3 shots in the first 4 minutes, 2 on designed post-ups, and 5 of his 6 shots in the first half. Whatever the reason was, it worked — when Melo went to the bench in the 3rd, the Thunder were down 20, and without him they went on a magnificent game-tying run. He re-entered the game (after visibly arguing with coaches on the bench) with 7 and a half minutes to go, but remained an afterthought on offense with Russ and PG now cooking, and Donovan pulled him for the final two and a half minutes.
Melo’s replacement for most of the game was Jerami Grant. Grant didn’t take up Melo’s shot attempts- in fact, by the box score, you’d never know Grant’s impact. He finished with 4 points, 2 assists, and 1 steal, but he was a massive +13. He just made winning plays. For example, with 45 seconds to go, after Russ airballed a shot with 1 second to go on the shot clock, but Grant sprinted back on defense, getting back in time to stop Joe Ingles who had just received an outlet pass. Ingles instead passed to Donovan Mitchell, who was blocked by Paul George. That play doesn’t show up in the box score for Grant, but it sealed the win for OKC, and was emblematic of the kind of plays he made all night.
When the Thunder switched defensively he was able to stay in front of his man (except for being sauced by Donovan Mitchell on one occasion — that you just have to live with). The Thunder weren’t quite as aggressive blitzing the pick and roll in this game as previous ones but still tried to trap Mitchell and Rubio high multiple times. The difference is, when Grant was out there, he was fast and long enough to tag the roll man and recover to his man in the corner, which Melo simply isn’t. If the Thunder are going to stick with this strategy, and they’ve stuck with it so far, Grant gives them a much better chance of pulling it off than Melo.
Offensively, Grant’s impact was in what he didn’t do- he didn’t take any bad shots (he took only 2 shots, and hit them both. One was a putback on an offensive rebound). Instead, he gave up the ball when he didn’t have a good look. Those possessions where he didn’t shoot, which end up as bad, contested fadeaways if Melo is playing, instead turned into more chances for Russell Westbrook and Paul George to get going. Get going they did, after a slow first half for both. Again, I’m not sure this was by design, but the Thunder’s offense eventually was just Russ and PG running pick and rolls with Steven Adams as a screener, with the occasional kickout to a shooter in the corner. It worked, and it played to the Thunder’s biggest advantage — they have the two best offensive players in the series in George and Westbrook. Those guys should be taking majority of the shots, because if one or both gets hot, the Jazz’s elite defense starts to matter less. Russ and PG took 65 combined shots in this game — if the thunder can get them that many looks, the chances of them getting into a good rhythm seem pretty high. Certainly higher than if 10 of those 65 shots go to Melo instead.
2. Westbrook finds his cotton shot
All series, Russ has struggled from the field. Wednesday night he finished 17-39, which isn’t incredibly efficient, but is far better than his other games in the series, but he did shoot 12-20 in the pivotal 2nd half to produce 45 points. Russ still took a lot of mid-range shots, but finally, he took the right kind of mid-range shots. Gone were the horrific turnaround jumpers from 14 feet after posting up Ricky Rubio that hit the backboard with a force you’d expect more from a cannonball than a basketball. Instead, he took pull up jumpers when the defense gave him too much space in the pick and roll, and while he didn’t nail all of those, he hit more than enough of them. Speaking of things that won’t show up in a box score, Steven Adams set some absolutely bone-crushing screens to free up Russ on those shots. Losing Adams to foul trouble earlier in the series cost the Thunder not just on the glass but also in the half court offense, where Adams’ screening is the key that unlocks everything else.
3. Abrines is the bench dark horse
Aside from Grant, Alex Abrines had a big impact in game 5, far bigger than his impact in the box score. Abrines is known as a floor spacer, but he also had a big impact defensively (entering this season, I never would have thought I’d write that sentence about a playoff game). Abrines played some excellent defense on Donovan Mitchell, contesting a number of his shots, staying in front of him, and in one key sequence, blocking Mitchell’s shot and then racing down the floor to nail a corner 3 in transition. The Thunder did an excellent job containing Mitchell in general in this one- he was 9-22, including 1-7 on 3’s. Mitchell has quietly been bad on 3’s this series, and the Thunder were smart to let him take them. They were smart as well to start the game with George guarding him- even as the Jazz built that early lead, Mitchell never got into a rhythm, and went the Jazz started to go cold from the perimeter, Mitchell wasn’t able to go supernova to save them.
Those 3 points in transition were the only points Abrines had all night, but like Grant, Abrines had an impact in the shots he didn’t take. Abrines can serve as a floor spacer just as well as Melo (actually better- he shoots 38% from 3, Melo 36%) but unlike Melo, he’s only out there to shoot 3’s, and he knows it. Abrines didn’t run a single stagnant post-up, didn’t take any crappy 18 footers with a hand in his face, and let Russ and PG run the show. Somehow, Alex Abrines — ALEX ABRINES — is a better 3 point shooter and defender than Carmelo Anthony here in the year 2018, and frankly, 3 and D is all the Thunder need alongside George and Westbrook. From a floor spacing perspective on offense, there’s no functional difference between playing Corey Brewer and Melo vs playing Abrines and Grant, but from a defense and athleticism standpoint there’s all the difference in the world. Billy Donovan may have stumbled ass backwards into his most effective line-up, but he should stick with it.
Some things won’t be as easy in game 6 as they were in game 5. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors won’t both get in foul trouble again, and the Thunder will need to find a way to score against that unit. On the flipside, some things that went the Jazz’s way in building that massive lead won’t happen again — Jae Crowder nailed almost all of his 3 pointers in the first half to build that big lead, and then promptly went back to bricking them in the second half. Westbrook isn’t likely to go 5-9 on his 3 pointers again, but Paul George may well do better than 2-6. Little things like that cancel out — the biggest reason fro this win was taking Melo out of the lineup and the effectiveness of Grant and Abrines in his place. That is a sustainable improvement, if Billy Donovan has the guts to stick with that lineup.
After 5 games, we know who these teams are. The Jazz are deeper, better coached, and stronger on defense. The Thunder have the two best players in the series in Westbrook and George. The 5 man unit of Westbrook-Abrines-George-Grant-Adams has been easily the most successful for the Thunder in these playoffs (and it was highly effective in limited minutes in the regular season, which is why I’ve been arguing all series for Donovan to run it more). That unit has allowed Russ and PG to get going by surrounding them with players who defend well (Alex Abrines, plus defender. Who would’ve thought?), don’t need the ball on offense, and run the floor in transition. The grouping has its weaknesses, but it’s the best this flawed Thunder roster can put out there. Billy Donovan showed a willingness to stick with this unit when it was working in game 5- he needs to be ready to roll it out early and often in game 6. If he is, the Thunder still might be able to pull this series out. We’ll know soon enough.
Which adjustment is most critical for game 6?
This poll is closed
Better offense by Westbrook
Abrines, the 3-D dark horse
Other - write in below