(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Mark D. Smith)
With a little over 20 minutes to go in Wednesday’s Game 5, the Thunder’s season was all but over. Down 3-1 in the series against the Jazz they were facing a 46-71 deficit in the third quarter. Enter Russell Westbrook and Paul George. The final eight-and-a-half minutes of the quarter saw Westbrook score 20 points and George add 12 as OKC went on a 32-7 run to tie the game. Westbrook scored 33 of his 45 points in the second half, while George scored 34 for the game.
For the Jazz, it was their inability to defend with Rudy Gobert off the floor that cost them. They were +7 with the big Frenchman on court, and he was the only Utah player with a positive box plus/minus throughout the course of the game.
Three keys to the game
Westbrook and George - These two are the clear barometers for not only the Thunder, but the entire series. In OKC’s three losses, Westbrook shoots 38.9% and George 37.9%. In their two wins, Westbrook is at 42.2%, and George is at 54.3% (including 58.8% from long range). They were not only the catalysts, but the sole contributors to the Thunder’s third quarter comeback, at least from a scoring perspective, and their performances will dictate whether this series goes to a Game 7.
Foul trouble - If there was no such thing as a foul limit, we probably wouldn’t be seeing a Game 6 in this series. Both Gobert and Derrick Favors ended with five fouls on Wednesday and were forced to sit for much longer throughout the game than Quin Snyder would have liked. As a result, the Thunder were able to score 44 points in the paint (up from 37.5 in the first four games) and 20 second-chance points (up from 12 in the first four games).
Utah’s bench - This has been a problem for the Jazz this series. Their starters have generally been significantly better than their opponents, with these players boasting an offensive rating of 108.8 and a defensive rating of 97.2, for a net rating of 11.7. In stark contrast, their bench players are conceding an average of 114.4 points per 100 possessions, and have a net rating of -12.5.
Matchup to watch
Paul George vs Joe Ingles - This matchup has gotten a little heated at various points throughout the series and has so far been both entertaining and vitally important. George has been a barometer, playing extremely well in the Thunder’s two wins and pretty poorly in their three losses. This is not a reflection of his ability to play well when faced with adversity, but rather of his importance to the team.
At the other end of the floor, Ingles has managed to be influential despite the defensive prowess of his opponent. Aside from a Game 2 which saw him score just three points on 1-for-6 shooting, the Australian has been able to capitalize very efficiently on the brief moments of space he is allowed. For the series, he is averaging 14.6 points, and has connected on 18 3-pointers at a rate of 46.2%.
Oklahoma City Thunder predicted starting lineup
PG - Russell Westbrook | SG - Corey Brewer | SF - Paul George | PF - Carmelo Anthony | C - Steven Adams
Utah Jazz predicted starting lineup
PG - Ricky Rubio | SG - Donovan Mitchell | SF - Joe Ingles | PF - Derrick Favors | C - Rudy Gobert
Mitchell, in his first taste of the NBA postseason, has been able to perform at a high level incredibly consistently. He has scored at least 22 points in all five games, and for the series is averaging 26.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.6 steals per night.
Westbrook has been inconsistent, but his numbers are still relatively high throughout the series. Overall, he is averaging 26 points for the series, to go with 12.4 rebounds, 8.0 assists (and 5.2 turnovers), and 1.4 steals.
The Jazz will be confident they can get the job done at home, and they should be able to cover the six-point handicap they have been given by oddsmakers. Though the series is going down to the wire, none of the individual games have been particularly close. The seven-point margin in Game 2 was the closest final result, so expect Utah to cover the line here.
The Jazz blew a golden opportunity to finish off the series on Wednesday, but they should be able to finish things off at home. The impact of Favors and in particular Gobert having to sit significant minutes due to foul trouble in Game 5 can't be understated, and they will be careful to ensure they aren’t faced with a similar predicament in this game.
Westbrook goes to a new level with his back against the wall, but as the first half of Game 5 showed, this isn’t always to his team’s benefit. He put in an extraordinary effort to drag them back into it in the second half, but the chance of him replicating a similar level of efficiency in this game is low. Utah, led by Gobert’s incredible defense in the paint, will be able to keep the Thunder to a low enough score to take out the series 4-2 with a 104-96 win.
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Tip-off is at 10:30pm ET.