Thunder salvage season with improbable Game 5 comeback

Sue Ogrocki/AP PhotoOklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reaches for a rebound with Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale, left, during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, April 25, 2018.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Raymond Felton stood up.

The Thunder had already begun a halftime, locker room ritual. The veterans were addressing the team. They weren't thrilled. Russell Westbrook went. So did Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. They’d reached the backup point guard’s turn.

There was nothing unusual about players speaking their minds at the half. But this moment was different. The Thunder trailed Utah 56-41 through two quarters of Game 5 in their first-round playoff series. They were back three games to one, overall. And Wednesday’s performance had been another decrepit one with the Jazz outdoing them in any possible aspect of the game — and most importantly, with their energy and effort.

“It was usual but kind of sad,” one Thunder player described the situation.

But with possibly only 24 minutes remaining in the Thunder's season, Felton spoke.

“Do we want this?” he asked. “Are we ready to just hang this up and go home?”

The Thunder waited a bit. But apparently, they listened. And they weren't ready to hang anything.

They left Chesapeake Energy Arena with a 107-99 victory — after falling down by as many as 25 points over the first few minutes of the third — thanks to Utah rim protector Rudy Gobert’s foul trouble. Thanks to usual sharpshooter Alex Abrines’ defensive work on the Jazz’s leading scorer, Donovan Mitchell. Thanks to George’s clutch 34 points and eight rebounds. Thanks to coach Billy Donovan going to a defense that switched on ball screens instead of the far less successful one that was sending big men far from the hoop to defend pick-and-rolls.

But mostly, thanks to Westbrook’s obituary-deleting performance. He finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. The unforgiving Thunder point guard scored inside, outside and helped OKC eliminate its 25-point deficit in only eight minutes.

He played the entire second half in the process.

“What were we going to rest for?” George smiled after the game.

In spite of the situation and the first-half sluggishness, Westbrook didn’t seem to tire. Maybe the most remarkable stat of what was one of his most impressive performances ever was the score over the final 20:30 of play:

Russell Westbrook 33, Utah Jazz 28.

"Russell started being Russell Westbrook, I guess you could say," Thunder shooting guard Corey Brewer said.

He attacked the rim relentlessly once Gobert, who had deterred the Thunder from getting to the basket for much of the series, subbed out. He continued doing so even after Gobert re-entered and had to play with four or five fouls.

He tied the game in the most Westbrookian of ways, chucking up one of those patented, momentum, pull-up 3-pointers and knocking it in to knot the score at 78 at end of the third quarter.

“It’s win or go home,” Westbrook said. “Regardless of what is going on in the game, you always have to give yourselves a chance to win. I think our guys did a good job of that tonight. Our team did an amazing job of sticking together and coming out with a win.”

More relevant than the score, however, was swing in energy. The Thunder played through a coma during the first half and the beginning of the third quarter. They fell down 71-46 with eight-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third.

They ended the game on a 61-28 run.

Westbrook had his 33 over that span. George went for 21 then. The two either scored or assisted on every one of those 61 points.

George had harped on the team’s lack of energy for days. He had previously said matching the Jazz's hard play would be the key to Game 4. The Thunder couldn’t do it, and they lost by 17. He repeated the emphasis at Wednesday morning’s shootaround prior to Game 5.

He just couldn’t answer why the Thunder had failed to prop their intensity to acceptable degrees by that point.

“We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in if I could answer that,” he said.

So, maybe Utah pushing them near basketball death was the most helpful action the Jazz could take. Maybe being so lifeless reminded the Thunder how the living are supposed to compete.

This is far from over. The Jazz still lead the series three games to two and will host Game 6 on Friday. But the Thunder are supposed to be done. Somehow, they're not.

“Down 25. You know, what else could we do?” George said. “Just give energy, give effort, go all out. We just had to dig deep.”

Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.

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