OKLAHOMA CITY — Who gets credit for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s miraculous victory over the Utah Jazz?
Was Tuesday’s comeback because of Russell Westbrook? He went for 34 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists while helping his team turn a 17-point deficit into a 100-94 win. Coach Billy Donovan credited Westbrook’s “never-die attitude” as a reason for the resurgence.
But there were more reasons than just Westbrook. Far more.
There was Steven Adams, who the “big three” seems to be starting to recognize as an equal. Adams went for 20 points, the third consecutive game he’s scored at least 19, on 9 of 10 shooting.
He made vital plays down the stretch, including forcing turnovers on pick-and-rolls, deterring shots at the rim and finishing a put-back off a Carmelo Anthony miss that iced the win.
“He’s catching in the lane. He’s making floaters. If he doesn’t have a floater, he’s making extra passes. He’s offensive rebounding. He’s doing those things,” Donovan said. “But it has to do with a lot of the guys who are out there on the floor with him.”
But was the victory more because of Paul George?
George looked like he forgot how to play basketball during Tuesday’s first half. He shot just 1 of 5, committing six turnovers, many self-inflicted, in the process. It pushed the Thunder toward 14 first-half giveaways against a stout Jazz defense. But George went for 18 points in the second half, including an and-one to give the Thunder the lead in crunch time, shooting 6 of 8 in the last two quarters — and turning the ball over just once.
“Just throwing that first half out the door, that’s honestly what got me going,” George said. “I came in here and just hit the reset button.”
Maybe the victory goes deeper. Did the Thunder win because of their execution of a bench lineup that turned the game around to begin the fourth quarter?
Donovan had been using Adams to start second and fourth quarters. He veered a little differently Tuesday, bringing Adams back into the game with four minutes remaining in the third and giving him his rest to begin the final period. It meant rolling with a lineup that still tilted defensive: Raymond Felton, Andre Roberson, George, Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant. It meant the Thunder could bust out their most aggressive defensive strategies of the night.
They trapped willingly. More importantly, they did so effectively. It was something they could not quite execute in other lineups, especially ones with Westbrook and Anthony. They cornered the ball on the wing with Felton and Roberson, whose second-half performance Donovan called “incredible.” They did so on the baseline with Grant. They closed out on shooters quick enough to disrupt shots.
“I don’t even remember who was in the game, honestly, bro. I couldn’t even tell you,” Westbrook said. “But I know Dre was on the floor.”
The lineup played only three minutes together. But it outscored Utah 7-2 to start the third. It sparked a fourth quarter during which the Thunder outscored the Jazz 32-14.
“We matched up and guarded,” George said. “And that’s what we gotta do.”
Whether because of Westbrook or George or Adams or Roberson or the rest of the group, this game followed opposite tropes of early-season ones. The Thunder struggled offensively to start.
“We played hurried. We played rushed. We played like we were down by 20 points with five minutes to go in the game,” Donovan said. “That’s the way we played in the first half.”
But they won late.
They’ve now won three consecutive games that have come within five points with five-or-fewer minutes to go. They began the season losing nine of 10 in games that entered that situation.