SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Paul George hasn’t stopped thinking about last season’s playoff exit against the Utah Jazz.
“I’ve owed this to this team. I didn’t like the way I finished in this arena last time I was here. That was on my mind,” said George, who had 43 points and 14 rebounds to help the Oklahoma City Thunder hold off Utah 107-106 on Saturday night.
The Thunder lost to the Jazz 4-2 in the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs. George wasn’t fully healthy and struggled at times, and that sour taste has stuck with him.
“This building. This building,” he repeated, shaking his head.
Jerami Grant and Steven Adams each scored 15 as the Thunder (21-10) won their fourth straight game and tied Denver for the best record in the Western Conference. Russell Westbrook had eight points on 3-for-17 shooting with 12 rebounds and nine assists.
Rudy Gobert had 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Jazz (16-18). Donovan Mitchell scored 20, Derrick Favors added 16 and Ricky Rubio had 12 points and 14 assists, his most since he’s been in Utah.
Three nights after scoring 43 points against Sacramento, George went 15 for 25 from the field and made five 3-pointers while dishing out six assists.
“He really got into an unbelievable rhythm and flow. What he did was remarkable out there,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
George hit a jumper to extend Oklahoma City’s lead to 106-97, but the Jazz fought back on the strength of their defense.
After a miss by Westbrook, Mitchell drove for a layup to make it 107-105. After Mitchell and Dennis Schroder exchanged steals, Westbrook fouled out trying to block Mitchell on a potential tying dunk with 1.5 seconds remaining.
“Russ saved the game,” George said.
Mitchell was slow to get up after hitting the floor hard, and his first free throw rimmed out. Mitchell launched the second free throw high, apparently attempting to generate a long rebound, but it swished through for the final margin.
“Just missed a free throw,” Mitchell said. “No way around it. That can’t happen.”
Westbrook was on the bench with four fouls when Rubio made a 3-pointer to give the Jazz a 79-70 lead midway through the third quarter. George scored 18 points in the last 6:04 of the period – on everything from driving dunks to spinning 3s – to forge a 93-81 advantage after three free throws with five seconds left.
“Russ went down and I knew I had to take over. I looked to be aggressive, attack and make plays,” George said.
In all, the Thunder outscored the Jazz 23-2 when everything went through George. He flexed while facing the Utah crowd on the baseline, he talked trash with Joe Ingles and he demanded the ball, even while drawing double-teams at times.
George didn’t do it just by shooting. In the fourth quarter, Mitchell looked as though he was headed for a breakaway dunk and George somehow took the ball from him. A couple of plays later, the Jazz overplayed him and he deftly dropped the ball off to Adams for an easy slam.
“He’s putting the ball in the hole at an incredible rate,” Donovan said. “Everybody talks about the points, but he had 14 rebounds tonight and he gets those four, five, six seven assists and he gets a few steals. But it’s the total impact he has on the game and he’s been doing an incredible job.”
George took some time getting in a rhythm after offseason knee surgery and the Thunder lost four straight. Since then, he has become nearly unstoppable. In his last nine games, George has averaged more than 32 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting.
“This is about the best he’s played since he’s been with us in Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said. “Once he gets it going, just make sure to find that hot hand.”
DON’T WORRY ABOUT RUSS
Even though Westbrook is mired in a shooting slump, his play is central to the Thunder’s success. “The guy gives his heart and soul to the game. He just cares about winning,” Donovan said. “His offense, I’m not worried about it. It will continue to come. … I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. If we want to be the team we hope to be, he’s got to be a big part of it.”
George agrees that Westbrook is so much more than a shooter.
“Offense doesn’t determine a player of Russell’s caliber. Who cares if he is struggling and shots aren’t falling? He impacts the game is so many ways,” George said.
Thunder: Westbrook picked up his fourth foul trying to get around Gobert’s pick with 7:33 left in the third, but the Thunder were actually outscored by 12 points when he was on the court. … Despite allowing several offensive rebounds down the stretch, the Thunder outrebounded the Jazz 51-44. … This is the first time George has had consecutive 40-plus point games.
Jazz: Even with a number of open looks, Utah didn’t make a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter. … The Jazz hadn’t lost at home when getting more than 30 assists since Nov. 26, 2008. Utah had 35 assists. … Gobert tallied his 28th double-double of the season.
Thunder: Host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.
Jazz: Host the Portland Trail Blazers in the final Christmas Day game on Tuesday.