The Oklahoma City Thunder fully understand the importance of Monday night’s Game 4 at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
With a road win over the Utah Jazz, the first round series would be tied at 2-2. It would put the series on track to go the full seven games. And it would send the Thunder home to Chesapeake Energy Arena with momentum back on their side.
A loss? Well, that would put the Jazz up 3-1 and put them firmly in control. It would make Wednesday’s Game 5 a 48-minute mission for OKC to avoid the end of its season. It would require the Thunder to win three consecutive games to win the series.
With that in mind, OKC players proclaimed Monday night a must win.
“I think we have to have that mentality,” Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony said. “I don’t want to put emphasis on this game being do-or-die. But we want to win this game, and we know this game is going to be very important to us.”
In order to win a game they desperately need, the Thunder have to find a way to get Russell Westbrook untracked. Simply put, their superstar point guard has been outplayed by his counterpart Ricky Rubio. In Game 3, Westbrook scored just 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting from the field. He had eight turnovers and made just 1 of 4 from 3-point range.
Following Utah’s 115-102 Game 3 win on Saturday night, Westbrook was steely in saying he intends to shut Rubio down in Game 4. He also said he needed to take care of the basketball better, avoid turnovers and find ways to make more of an impact on the game.
“We’ve just got to take what is given,” Westbrook said. “I was getting myself in trouble, jumping in the air, trying to get the ball to Melo and other guys on the floor. I’ve just got to stay in attack mode, read my first option and go.”
The Thunder acknowledge Jazz center Rudy Gobert had a lot to do with Westbrook’s inefficiency. At his best, Westbrook can be an almost unstoppable force going to the rim. He’s typically quick enough to get around most defenders and athletic enough to challenge — and beat — most big men at the rim.
But Gobert has been dominant in this series, and was especially so in Game 3. Thunder players have been hesitant to challenge Gobert in the paint. And for OKC, and especially Westbrook, that’s taken away a big part of their offense.
“He’s a tall guy who blocks shots and stuff like that,” Thunder center Steven Adams said. “But again, we’ve still been able to get downhill [off the dribble] and stuff like that. He’s not changing the game plan at all. But it’s their whole defense forcing us to go certain directions where they want to go.”
The Thunder have made adjustments as the series has progressed. In Game 2, they guarded Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell more exclusively with Paul George. In Game 3, they employed an all-perimeter lineup featuring Patrick Patterson at center that allowed them to build a 45-33 second quarter lead.
But the Jazz have had counters to every move by OKC coach Billy Donovan. At this point, for the Thunder, their ability to get back into the series may be on the players, and specifically Westbrook.
On Sunday, players and coaches backed Westbrook’s bold talk from Saturday night. They are still a loose and confident group. Practice ended with a 3-point shooting contest, featuring Adams, Josh Huestis, Anthony and even assistant coach Royal Ivey. But they know that confidence has to yield results in Game 4. And they know their pathway to a win has to be through Westbrook.
“I condone it,” Anthony said of Westbrook’s comments. “When you have somebody who’s that focused, regardless of how he said it or what he said, he’s serious about it. And when you have your leader taking that stance, then everyone else has to fall in line. We have to do our part. So, we’ll be ready tomorrow.”