About 24 hours before tip off in Game 1 against the Utah Jazz, Paul George promised he would introduce Oklahoma City to “Playoff P”. Chesapeake Energy Arena welcomes him with open arms.
Embracing the moment, George ripped off a Thunder playoff record 8 three-pointers on 11 attempts, en route to a 36-point game. Besides suffering a hip contusion and missing the closing minutes of the Thunder’s 116-108 victory over Utah to hold serve, George could hardly have delivered a better playoff debut in Oklahoma City.
“They’re going to give me perimeter shots or they’re going to give me midrange shots. Just take them and just be decisive on setting it up and looking for those opportunities,” George said. “Obviously I was hot tonight, but that’s the level I’m going to bring it every night.”
The Thunder also couldn’t have scripted a better first possession of the game. A trap down on the baseline led to a desperate Jazz pass back into the middle of the floor, and George was there to pick it off cleanly. George was off to the races and it resulted in a Russell Westbrook 3-on-1 fast break dunk. For the next 5 minutes after that, however, nothing went right for the Thunder. Some mediocre shot selection, some mismanaged transition defense and hot shooting by the Jazz led to a quick 16-4 start for the Jazz, forcing a Thunder timeout.
Out of the break, an 8-0 Thunder response turned the tide, and was the spark that ignited George’s night. The brilliant forward hit a pair of threes during that stretch that kicked off a 21-6 scoring edge for the Thunder in the back half of the quarter. Better attention to getting back and trying to limit turnovers helped get Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club back on track.
“Once we got back in transition and set our defense, we were in a better position than we were earlier in the game,” Donovan said. “We cleaned it up.”
One of George’s threes came off the dribble, under pressure from the defense as he went around an Adams screen. The second was a second chance catch-and-shoot three that George buried with steel in his eyes.
From there, it was George’s night. Isolated against overwhelmed Jazz defenders, George played with his food by using a fierce crossover dribble to shake the man in front of him and open up a shooting window. George, an avid fisherman, referenced a picture he posted on social media of a bass he caught on Thursday in Oklahoma City, when after the game he was asked how big the rim looked to him tonight.
“About as big as that fish I posted,” George quipped.
“When he’s aggressive he changes the game for us, as you see tonight,” Westbrook said of George. “He got it going. Our job is to make sure we find him and make it easy for him.”
With George, the Thunder’s second group of Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson put together a run to build a 5-point lead in the second quarter, holding Utah to just 3 points up until the 7:51 mark, and by that point Westbrook had checked back in to help guide the Thunder to a 9-point lead just prior to halftime.
The Jazz, a feisty, physical bunch, kept hanging around. After a 5-0 Jazz spurt cut the Thunder lead to 56-53 early in the third period, George knocked down back-to-back threes, one as his defender fell in front of him and another when Westbrook wisely pushed the tempo in transition and found George for an open jumper. George also provided some stifling defense for large swaths of the game on Jazz forward Joe Ingles, who serves not only as a spot up shooter, but as a playmaker for Utah. George held him to just 1 assist in the game.
“Just pressure him,” George stated.
The Thunder had a chance to put Utah away on a pair of occasions in the second half, including when another shake-and-bake George three put his squad up by 13. The Jazz chipped away back into it with driving layups from Dante Exum brought the lead back down to 7. But George sandwiched another three-point in between a pair of crucial three-pointers made by Alex Abrines, who finished with 11 big points off the bench. Both buckets came off perfect, precise passes from Jerami Grant in the lane, and were dropped in from the corner right in front of the Thunder bench. Oklahoma City’s “Lobenzo” did his signature beard rub towards the bench as he hustled back down court.
“I was really encouraged by Alex,” Donovan said. “That second unit in a lot of ways had some really good ball movement and really kind of helped us open up the lead.”
Those threes brought the rowdy home crowd to a fervor, and eventually Donovan’s club built a 109-91 lead with 3:20 to go. Effectively, the game was over, but the Thunder learned a quick and vital lesson. Too many quick shots on offense, poor defensive possessions and second chances for the Jazz resulted in a furious 7-0 run in a matter of 53 seconds, and the Thunder’s lead was just 8 with 1:02 to go. Westbrook, who had 29 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists in the game, plus Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony made 5 free throws down the stretch, part of a 20-for-23 night from the stripe for Oklahoma City, and put the icing on a hard-fought win.
“We’ve got to finish the game collectively as a group better than we did tonight,” Donovan said. “Game 2 will be harder than it was today.”
“We have an incredible coach. So he’s going to prepare us for Game 2, prepare us for what we might see in Game 2,” George added. “(We’ll) rely on our principles. Rely on what got us through Game 1, and trust in our system.”
By the Numbers
3 – Steals for Carmelo Anthony, who also picked up 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists to go with 15 points
8 – Made three-pointers for Paul George on the night, a Thunder playoff record, on his way to 36 points
20-for-23 – Free throw shooting numbers for the Thunder in the game, led by Russell Westbrook’s 9-for-9 night
The Last Word
“We just found a way to just calm down, kind of relax a little bit. I thought that we had a lot of adrenaline early on in the game, a lot of excitement coming in the playoffs and Game 1 on our court. Once we relaxed, started to play our game, we buckled down defensively. We found what we wanted offensively.” – forward Carmelo Anthony