SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — “I didn’t like the way I finished in this arena, last time I was here,” Paul George told media in the locker room following the Oklahoma City Thunder’s (21-10) win in Salt Lake City. “I owe it to myself and my teammates. That was on my mind coming into tonight.”
For those who don’t remember, George is referring to Game 6 in last year’s playoff series against the Utah Jazz (16-18). In an elimination game, the Thunder’s number two man looked uncomfortable handling the ball and at times downright hesitant to attack. George finished five points on 2-of-16 shooting, including 0-of-6 from three. Oklahoma City’s 2017-18 campaign came to a screeching halt.
Tonight was a different story.
For the second consecutive game, George dropped 40-plus points and looked every bit the MVP candidate he has been lauded for over the last two weeks.
15-of-25 from the floor. 5-of-10 from deep. 8-of-10 from the foul line. 14 rebounds. Six assists. Five steals. You might say the polar opposite of the last time he was in Utah.
“He really got into an unbelievable rhythm and flow,” Billy Donovan said afterwards. “What he did was remarkable out there.”
Oklahoma City needed every bit of George’s performance and more — that will come later — to leave Vivint Smart Home Arena with a victory. The game shared every bit of the playoff atmosphere and angst from last season’s first round rodeo.
“This building. This building,” George said in the locker room. No doubt the fans in Utah have impacted the Thunder’s psyche since they last met.
With the Jazz finally showing signs of the team that finished the regular season off last year in big wins against the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trailblazers, tonight’s game had all the makings of an exciting contest. Two of the Association’s best defenses going head to head.
So naturally, the offenses lit it up in the first half.
Utah came out on fire from deep. Routinely burning the Thunder’s lack of closing out on the perimeter. When the Jazz weren’t hitting threes, they were running simple pick-and-rolls with Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert. All this helped Utah build a lead as large as 13 in the second quarter.
As they have all season, Oklahoma City was able to adjust and make a run of their own on both sides of the floor. A game that could have easily been blown way out of hand saw the Thunder trail 61-58 heading into the locker room.
Then George started cooking.
Oklahoma City outscored the Jazz 35-20 in the third to take a 93-81 lead heading into the fourth. The Thunder’s number two guy began to play like the number one hero. George hit seven of his nine shot attempts and helped Oklahoma City close the third on a 23-2 run.
“He’s putting the ball in the hole at an incredible rate,” Donovan said. “The total impact he has on the game, he’s been doing an incredible job.”
With yet another dominant third quarter performance, the Thunder improve to a league-best +128 point differential in the third quarter. The Boston Celtics are second with a +78.
This was was made more impressive by the phenomenon that continues to plague Russell Westbrook.
The midrange jumper just isn’t falling for the Thunder’s point guard. Westbrook only hit three of his 17 attempts tonight and finished with eight point — only the sixth time he has been held to single digits in scoring since 2016.
“Offense doesn’t determine a player of Russell’s caliber,”George said. “Who cares if he is struggling and shots aren’t falling? He impacts the game is so many ways.”
With the Jazz taking advantage of George cooling down in the fourth and some careless Westbrook passes, Oklahoma City needed a big play down the stretch.
A Westbrook three with seven seconds to go would not be that big play. A poor decision on the All-Star’s part. He would redeem himself however on the final possession with the Thunder up two.
“Russ saved the game,” George claimed.
Donovan Mitchell drove into the lane with an open look to the basket with mere seconds remaining. Westbrook, who was sitting on five fouls, was left with one choice — go for it.
Westbrook jumped with Mitchell, looking for the game-tying dunk, and blocked the dunk attempt. The effort however resulted in a foul, sending Mitchell to the line for two free throws, and Westbrook out of a game that seemed destined for overtime.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, Mitchell missed his first attempt. After the second attempt went in, the Thunder simply had to inbound the ball with 1.7 seconds remaining. Ball game. An anti-climatic ending to an otherwise epic December regular season classic.
“A teammate is a brother,” George said on his Instagram page after the game. The picture was of he and Westbrook embracing after the win. “And your brother will put it all on the line every time! Hell of a win fellas!”
With the win, the Thunder exorcised some Utah demons and now are tied with the Denver Nuggets for first in the Western Conference.