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The Russell Westbrook Inquisition Will Have to Wait

Russell Westbrook exploded in Game 5 and the Thunder were able to postpone the questions that will be asked of them in the offseason.

The Oklahoma City Thunder will live to die another day. Looking like they were headed for a summer full of questions, the Thunder earned a temporary reprieve Wednesday night, completing an epic comeback against the Jazz in a 107–99 win to avoid elimination. Utah still leads the first-round matchup 3–2, but it blew a prime opportunity to close out the series. Down 25 points early in the third quarter, OKC stormed back to tie the game at 78 headed into the final frame. The Thunder finished the game on a 61–28 run, fueled largely by the incredible play of Russell Westbrook.

Whoooo boy. Russ was headed for a fascinating podium session if OKC had folded after its disastrous start to the third. Westbrook was certainly one of the culprits for the team’s struggles, shooting inefficiently well into the second half. Russ started the game shooting 5-of-19, but he hit 12 of his last 20 shots, including a barrage of clutch threes down the stretch. Westbrook basically keyed the run taking the kinds of shots that typically elicit groans. When Russ has his jumper going, however, he becomes practically impossible to stop. Westbrook finished with a purely Westbrookian statline—45 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 17-of-39 shooting—and when asked to save his team’s season, he did exactly that.

The narrative on Westbrook has certainly been exhausting over the last two seasons. But the playoffs should serve as a referendum on the NBA’s best players. It’s not necessarily about who is clutch or who is truly a “winner.” What the playoffs can reveal is a player’s true ceiling. With an objectively better supporting cast than last season, Westbrook’s martyr act wasn’t going to work for another year. The Thunder are far from out of the woods, and a loss in Game 6 will invite the questions Wednessday almost did about how far OKC can go with Russ as its best player. But Westbrook, with a gutsy performance, absolutely earned his stay of execution.

There were also some non-Westbrook reasons for the frantic comeback. Foul trouble really sank the Jazz. Rudy Gobert was playing excellently until he picked up his fourth foul early in the third. Utah’s lead began slipping as soon as Gobert hit the bench. Quin Snyder tried to stop the bleeding by bringing Gobert back in, but The Stifle Tower quickly picked up his fifth personal, and he had to watch from the sideline as the Thunder tied the game. We’ve said it before, but it can’t be overstated: Rudy Gobert is the best player on the Jazz. His presence on the floor changes the team completely. Even skilled offensive talents like Westbrook and Paul George think twice about entering the paint when Gobert is lounging in the restricted area. For all of Westbrook’s greatness Wednesday (it helped that he was lights out from three), a couple less fouls on Gobert and we could be having a completely different conversation.

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Also, as harsh as it sounds, Carmelo Anthony’s minutes need to be severely reduced moving forward. The Thunder’s run not only coincided with Gobert’s foul trouble, but also with placing Melo on the bench. Anthony is offering next to nothing on defense, routinely getting singled out on switches and attacked by Utah’s guards. On offense, he’s not hitting open threes, he’s a threat to stop the ball and he’s not getting to the free throw line. OKC looked much better with Melo on the bench Wednesday. Billy Donovan likely will need to find more minutes for Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines or even Patrick Patterson. At this point, Melo is a liability.

With the Thunder Teetering, Paul George Free Agency Gets Interesting

Elsewhere, Donovan Mitchell continued to play well beyond his years in Game 5, but his 1-of-7 shooting from three was a red flag on an otherwise effective night. Three-point shooting was an important part of the Jazz’s offense, but it failed them at the worst time. After starting the game 9-of-18 from three, Utah only made four of its last 20 shots from beyond the arc. As valuable as he is defensively, the Jazz also become a little easier to defend when Gobert isn’t rolling hard to the rim. Still, Utah missed plenty of open looks in the second half, and it can’t pin every single problem on Gobert’s foul trouble.

Paul George, by the way, also came up big. He scored 34 points, and he came alive in the second half when the paint opened up. George was exactly the sidekick Westbrook needed in Game 5, accepting the burden of needing to produce a big night in a do-or-die moment.

Look, the Thunder didn’t magically solve every problem with their Game 5 win. Russell Westbrook probably didn’t turn into a knockdown jump shooter at halftime. But for a team that invited expectations, failed to meet them and looked like it was headed for an early postseason exit, Wednesday night was a significant moment. Maybe all of this means absolutely nothing and the Jazz will cruise to a series win on their home floor in Game 6. The Thunder are almost expected to collapse at this point. On the strength of Westbrook, they earned a much-needed respite from the onslaught of big-picture questions. What remains to be seen is how long that respite will last.