The Oklahoma City Thunder never rose to the occasion. They said they would, over and over again, throughout the regular season and into April. Paul George called himself Playoff P, and Russell Westbrook swore that he would “shut that shit off” in response to Ricky Rubio’s stellar triple-double in Game 3.
And then Game 4 came — the most important Thunder game all season — and none of it happened. The Utah Jazz won 113-96 on Monday, and the Thunder sunk to a 3-1 deficit against a team that has looked superior to them all series.
In a particularly damning statistic, the NBA on TNT production crew showed a graphic that listed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s leading fourth quarter scorers. There was Paul George with 4.0 points per fourth quarter, and Westbrook after him with 3.3. Those are thoroughly unspectacular numbers for a series that has been tight down the stretch in all three opening games, but wait, it gets worse. Somehow, Jerami Grant — Jerami Grant — had actually led the team with 4.7 points per fourth quarter in this series.
Too easy pic.twitter.com/guKCxunF5W— (@KofieYeboah) April 24, 2018
When Westbrook asked reporters in March to tell him what the Thunder’s record was against the best teams, it sent a clear message: his teammates and he will step up when it matters. But did he? Westbrook finished Game 4 with 23 points on 7-of-18 shooting with three assists and five turnovers. Is that the step up that he promised?
Oklahoma City led after the first quarter and had a two-point advantage with as few as two minutes left in the second quarter. From there, Utah slowly marched ahead: up six points at halftime, and up 17 points after the third quarter, and up enough throughout the fourth that the game was never really in doubt.
The Thunder simply weren’t good enough, and it starts with the stars. Paul George scored, recording 32 points on 9-of-21 shooting despite six turnovers. His defense wasn’t quite as stifling as you would hope, though, and his second half was much quieter than the first. At this point, it’s not a real surprise that Carmelo Anthony was a virtual non-factor. He scored just 11 points while hoisting 18 attempts.
It’s not easy to go up against Utah’s defense. Theirs is the best in the league, and Rudy Gobert is enough to spook anyone driving to the rim. The Thunder shot 4-of-24 from behind the arc, and it’s almost impossible to beat Utah when that happens. There’s just not enough points to be had in the paint against the league’s best rim protector when you can’t hit from deep. And that speaks to Oklahoma City’s poor shooting, but let’s be sure to appreciate Utah’s role in all this, too.
The series isn’t over, but all the warning signs and questions about the Thunder that were brushed off by the team themselves have arrived. They can’t be brushed off anymore. Barring a miraculous comeback, those concerns appear to have won out.