They didn’t have their shot blocker in there, so just tried to take advantage of that, and make plays at the basket. —Oklahoma City's Paul George
SALT LAKE CITY — Much of the national attention on the Jazz-Thunder first-round playoff series has focused on the perimeter stars.
Particularly, Donovan Mitchell and Russell Westbrook.
Then in Game 5, Westbrook exploded in OKC to push the series to a Game 6 in Utah on Friday. He led the Thunder to the biggest comeback in franchise history and became the third player in league history to post at least 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a playoff game, joining LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain, per Elias Sports.
But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a different narrative that’s also playing out. The interior battle is just as significant between Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams, if you watch closely.
It seems as though foul trouble is also dictating outcomes.
During Game 5 on Wednesday, Gobert picked up his fourth shooting foul on Carmelo Anthony early in the third quarter, which led to OKC's 32-7 run to end the period after the Thunder trailed by 25 points.
“When Rudy went out, that impacted us. But that said, I thought our struggles on the offensive end impacted our defense too much,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “We’ve known during the year if we struggle offensively that our defense has to stay solid.
“But I thought when they did start making plays and Rudy went out that we were fighting it, but we didn’t execute as well as we needed to offensively against the switch, got some good looks, missed them, and then the biggest thing is 37 points in the third quarter, just kind of back in the game and they had confidence and life, and we didn’t do what we needed to do.”
Gobert’s defensive presence was certainly missed as Westbrook went off for 20 of his 45 points in the third and Paul George also dropped 12 of his 34 during that stretch. With Gobert on the court, Utah’s defensive rating was 89.9, but it jumped to 133.5 with him off the court, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
“They didn’t have their shot blocker in there, so we just tried to take advantage of that, and make plays at the basket,” George admitted.
Adams, on the other hand, finished as a plus-16 in 40 minutes with only one personal foul in Wednesday’s 107-99 win. OKC, however, found itself in a similar situation with Adams being in foul trouble for Games 2 and 3, which limited him to just 24 minutes per game and resulted in back-to-back losses.
Gobert knows he has to make better decisions to stay on the floor for Game 6, with the Jazz leading the series, 3-2.
“I got in foul trouble early in the game,” Gobert said. “Had a few stupid fouls that were on me. The fourth foul was too easy for them and that is on me. I’ve got to be smarter and avoid those first three fouls. Don’t put my team in this position.”
Even once Gobert returned to the court, the foul situation prevented him from being as forceful around the rim as he normally is. Gobert finished with five fouls, and Thunder players certainly noticed and took advantage of it.
“Momentum, flow, his foul trouble, all of that played a part,” George said of attacking Gobert. “He couldn’t be as aggressive in protecting the rim and we found that was working for us, so we stuck with it.”
A mixture of shortcomings contributed to the Jazz’s third-quarter meltdown on the road, but ultimately the team just has to play better defensively without relying so much on Gobert.
Mitchell was recorded after the loss on a camera phone at Chesapeake Energy Arena telling OKC fans, ‘Hey, we’ll see y’all next year.”
The Jazz now have to deliver on that bold statement to avoid returning to OKC for a Game 7 Sunday.
“It showed, you know. Whenever they got to the basket, it is a different feeling when you do not have big fella back (Rudy Gobert) there,” Mitchell said. “Even so, it is hard when you put all the pressure on him.
“We have had success, but eventually it is not going to work, so we have to play better defense as guards ourselves, not letting Russ get to the basket and letting him shoot,” he added. “Just taking more pride defensively. Definitely hurts when you have big fella not in the game.”