The Oklahoma City Thunder’s mindset is both predictable and alarming at the same time.
The Thunder, pushed to the brink of elimination at the hands of the Jazz, understand Wednesday’s Game 5 at Chesapeake Energy Arena is a mandatory win. Otherwise Oklahoma City’s season ends in stunning and disappointing fashion.
How did the Thunder get to this point? How did they fall behind 3-1 to a Jazz team they dominated during the regular season? How realistic is it for Oklahoma City to dig out of this hole? And how has rookie Donovan Mitchell been the best player in a series that features Russell Westbrook and Paul George?
It’s a lot to digest for the Thunder.
“We can sit here and say what we have to do, and what we didn’t do and what we did do,” OKC forward Carmelo Anthony said. “It comes down to having the will to win. And that game on Wednesday, it comes down to forcing a Game 6 back here in Utah and taking it from there.”
The Thunder looked stunned following Monday night’s 113-96 Game 4 loss at Vivint Smart Home Arena. And maybe that’s to be expected. Game 1 was a breeze for them. Paul George went 8 of 11 from 3-point range, OKC got into the Jazz physically and Utah didn’t look ready for the series.
It looked like a replay of the regular season in a lot of ways .
But the Jazz responded with three consecutive wins. More alarmingly for the Thunder, the Jazz have become more dominant with each win. The score was tied at 87-87 in Game 2 before Utah made a few shots to pull away at the end. The Thunder led 45-33 in the middle of the second quarter of Game 3 before the Jazz found their stride and dominated the second half.
Game 4 was different. Yes, Oklahoma City led 30-24 after the first quarter, but that was with favorable officiating and the Jazz missing open shot after open shot. Neither would be sustainable. The whistles stopped blowing after every OKC drive to the basket, and the Jazz eventually stopped missing shots with no Thunder defender in the same area code.
As a result, the game got out of hand. The Thunder trailed by as many as 21 points. Russell Westbrook scored 23 points, but shot 7 of 18 from the field, while Anthony had his worst game of the series, shooting 5 of 18 and scoring just 11 points. Only Paul George with a team-high 32 points played relatively well.
“I thought we were just missing some open shots,” Westbrook said. “They got some open shots and they made them. But we have to keep creating shots and getting shots for each other. If we do that, we can go from there.”
What can the Thunder do to get back into the series?
They went 14 of 28 from 3-point range and lost by double-digits in Game 3. They generated 30 free throws in Game 4 and were run out of Vivint Smart Home Arena. Their big adjustment in the series was going small with Patrick Patterson at center, but the Jazz had a counter.
Oklahoma City may be running out of answers other than Westbrook playing much better. And that puts OKC’s season in danger of being a failure. This Thunder team was created with the goal of competing for a title. But OKC limped through the regular season and never created a synergy between their three stars.
That was evident Monday night, when the Thunder went 22 minutes between the second and fourth quarter without an assist. Their offense essentially came to a grinding halt, featuring a crescendo of ill-fated isolation possessions. They ended up with 10 assists. The last time a Thunder team had 10 or fewer assists was 2016.
Still, for as beaten as they looked Monday, they are still one of the most talented teams in the league and a team capable of catching fire for three games. But they no longer have a margin for error.
“We have to play like we played in Game 1,” George said. “We have to approach this like a Game 7 and see what happens from there.”