The Utah Jazz dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night, closing out the first round series with a narrow and vaguely controversial victory on Utah’s home floor behind more stout defense and just enough shot-making from their various role-players. Donovan Mitchell was fantastic, dropping in 38 points on 26 shots in 40 minutes of action. Mitchell, a rookie, was the best and most efficient offensive force in a series that also featured all of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.
Westbrook took a whopping 43 shots in 44 minutes in Game 6, including 29 shots in the second half alone. 43 shots is a huge number: this was only the 14th time in NBA history when a player has attempted at least 40 shots in a playoff game, and only the second time since 2001, and both of those belong to Russ. It’s an eye-popping stat, and one that certainly won’t discourage the “Russ is a damn ball hog” crowd:
Parsing this down to a set of basically true statements without reducing the entire discussion to a series of shrug emoticons is almost impossible. That Bill Simmons tweet is, of course, wrong—it has never been a playoff formula in the last 50 years, but Allen Iverson’s 76ers and Michael Jordan’s Bulls won games deploying it, and anyway describing it as a “formula” instead of a product of desperation is obviously dumb and wrong—but there is a kind of truth in it: no coach who knew what he was doing would work 40 shots for Westbrook into his game plan, for the simple reason that Russ isn’t an especially efficient scorer from anywhere except the restricted area and (before this season) the free throw line.
On the other hand, if you latch onto the 43 shots as an explanation for why the Thunder lost Game 6, you’ll miss a lot of important details: in the third quarter, when Russ scored 20 points on 15 shots, the Thunder ripped off their best offensive quarter of the game (29 points, or eight more than their next highest total in a quarter); they lost that quarter, and Russ was minus-8 in the frame, because the Thunder gave up a disastrous 37 points to the Jazz; in the fourth quarter, when Russ turned 14 shot attempts into just 11 points, the Thunder outscored the Jazz by three. Yes, the Thunder offense tilted hilariously towards Russ in the second half Friday night. No, it wasn’t a formula. Yes, it produced a loss in an elimination game. No, it doesn’t describe why the Thunder lost. It’s almost always silly to boil an NBA game down to one single statistic, and this game, one glaring 43-shot explosion notwithstanding, is no exception.
Having said that, I would like to point out that Carmelo Anthony went minus-19 in 26 minutes of burn, in a game his team lost by five points. There’s a damn stat! It was a nightmarish playoff series at the end of an awful season for Melo. He finished the six game series with a minus-14.5 net rating, with ghastly 38/21/73 shooting splits. The Thunder were outscored by 58 points during his 194 minutes on the court, and outscored the Jazz by 32 points in the 94 minutes he sat. The 58-point deficit is the largest on-court deficit for any Thunder player in the series; hilariously, the 32-point cushion is also the largest off-court margin for any Thunder player. As true as it is that Russ should not take 43 shots in a playoff game, it is at least as true that Carmelo Anthony should not play 26 minutes in one. Those days are way over. Melo, by the way, has one option year left on his contract, worth $28 million. After the season he’s had Melo can’t possibly love the idea of staying in Oklahoma City, but if the Thunder are quietly hoping he’ll walk away from $28 million in an era of league-wide salary cap inflexibility, they might as well buy some lottery scratchers.
How might the series have looked if the Thunder had been able to deploy Andre Roberson to gobble up Mitchell? Or just as another switchable defender capable of credibly defending multiple positions? Roberson finished this season with the best defensive rating (96.4) of any Thunder rotation player; OKC’s defensive rating without Roberson during the regular season jumped to 107.6, which would’ve dropped the Thunder’s defense to just 19th in the league; OKC’s defensive rating in this first-round series was a not-good 106.3. But also, what if Billy Donovan had the good idea to just bench Melo, or reduce his minutes down to nothing? And, most tantalizing, what would a Thunder playoff rotation look like with the frightening defensive trio of Roberson, Paul George, and Steven Adams in action, with no Melo around to blight it? With George entering free agency this summer, and the bitter disappointment of a first-round exit lingering in his mind, we might never get a chance to find out, and that’s a genuine bummer.
As for the Jazz, they won a playoff series over a higher-seeded team the season after their All Star wing jumped ship to the Eastern Conference and was replaced by a rookie. That rookie, Donovan Mitchell, was excellent as a shot-maker and offensive valve, and averaged more than 28 points per game in the series. Rudy Gobert was a dominant defense force all series. The enormous Gobert-Derrick Favors interior duo finished the series with a whopping plus-23.9 net rating in 132 minutes. And the Jazz closed out the series in a game in which Ricky Rubio played just seven minutes due to a hamstring injury. That makes this season an unqualified success, no matter what happens from here.
But the Jazz will be an extreme underdog against the Houston Rockets in the conference semi-finals, having been swept in the four-game regular season series by more than 17 points per game. That series gets underway Sunday afternoon, in Houston. It’s not the matchup anyone particularly wanted, especially considering the Thunder took two of three from the Rockets this season, including their final matchup, just three weeks ago, in Houston. That’s the series everyone wanted. True to form, it’s another disappointment courtesy of the underachieving Oklahoma City Thunder.