By Mark Milligan Jr
Sept 10, 2018
The West is a gauntlet. That much we know. Golden State is the team to beat and everyone else will be scratching and clawing over each other to rise to the top. Very few teams are sitting this season out and at least two or three teams that deserve to be in the playoffs will be vacationing early.
So how good are the Jazz? Good. Very good, in fact. But so is everyone else. This season will depend on everything from talent to luck, including every variable the opposition has to offer. But that also means that for each foe, the road to victory must pass through Utah as well. In this series, we take a look at how the best teams in the West size up against Utah.
If I were a betting man, I would have bet my last dollar. The very next day, I’d be broke. It was a given, wasn’t it? There was simply no way in Hades that Paul George was going to stay in Oklahoma City. He had his bags packed for Laker-ville. Then…he surprises everyone (OKC included) by re-signing. Add that to the list of off-season moves that, not only kept OKC relevant, but helped them improve upon an already competitive team. It would be foolish to underestimate the Thunder just because Utah proved to be the better team in April. OKC will be even better this time around, for a number of reasons.
First of all, not only did the Thunder retain George, but they also let Carmelo Anthony walk. That alone will ensure that the Thunder will be a better team come October. Carmelo just wasn’t a good fit for them. (Is he a good fit anywhere anymore?) In fact, Utah’s offensive game plan last year involved a steady diet of exposing the simple fact that Melo has little to no interest in playing defense. That won’t be available this time around. Throw in a new pesky Dennis Schroder to come off the bench and you’re looking at a much tougher team.
But it doesn’t end there. Don’t forget, OKC was without the elite defensive services of André Roberson since January after he went down with a ruptured patellar tendon. Had he been healthy during the playoffs, they most likely would have won the series. Roberson was 2nd in the league in defensive real plus-minus (at 4.34), behind none other than our own Rudy Gobert (at 5.06). If losing Roberson was even half as devastating for OKC as losing Gobert was for Utah, then expect the Thunder to be that much better now that he’s back.
So even though the Utah Jazz hailed victorious in April, remember, it was a dogfight for six games and this year the Thunder will strike even harder.
1) Ricky Rubio vs Russell Westbrook
The Thunder is Russell Westbrook’s team. Despite many good players, he alone is the head of the snake; as he goes, so goes the team. Westbrook averaged 32.2 point per game in wins over Utah during the regular season and playoffs, compared to only 21.6 points per game in their losses to the Jazz. Ricky Rubio won’t be able to stop him (as no one can), but if Rubio can at least annoy him enough to slow him down, that will give Utah the opportunity to outmatch the rest of the Thunder.
2) Donovan Mitchell vs André Roberson
As head of the offensive spear, Donovan Mitchell’s battle with arguably the best defensive wing in the league will be critical. Although Mitchell didn’t have to go up against Roberson in the playoffs, they did see each other three times during the regular season. Below is how he faired against Roberson in each game. It’s a small sample size, but if you don’t include the first matchup (only Donovan’s 3rd regular season game ever, and before his breakout game against the Lakers on Oct. 28th) Mitchell averaged 30 points on 23 for 38 shooting (.605 fg%) against Roberson. Not too bad! Still, he’s going to have to keep that up if they want any chance of keeping pace with OKC.
Donovan Mitchell vs Oklahoma City Thunder during 2017-18 regular season
Keys to Victory
Defensive Key – Slow Down Westbrook
As mentioned above, Westbrook (a.k.a. Mr. Triple-Double) is the key. It’s not like he is the only great player, as their starting lineup includes the likes of Paul George, André Roberson, and Steven Adams (who is one of the very few players that Gobert seems to struggle with). However, if Westbrook is held in check, the rest of the team can be dealt with accordingly.
Offensive Key – Put’em in the Blender
Taking it at Carmelo Anthony is no longer an option. Jerami Grant is in line to take his place, and although he’s not as offensively skilled, he’s by far a better defender than Melo. The Thunder will have a solid defender at every position, so there will be no weak links to expose anymore. To put up points, it will require a team effort. Keep the ball moving, passing, driving, never stagnant, until the Thunder find themselves one step behind. That, along with a regular diet of Donovan Mitchell, should make for a defensively frustrating experience for OKC.
Game 1:Jazz @ Thunder(Dec 10)
The Jazz will be in the middle of a three game road trip and will have just ended a brawl against the Spurs less than 24 hours earlier. This will be a rough night for Utah.
Thunder by 7
Game 2: Thunder @ Jazz(Dec 22)
Again, the Jazz will be playing the energetic Thunder on the second night of a back-to-back. At least this time the Jazz will be playing at home. Unfortunately, a team needs energy to keep up with Westbrook and Co. I don’t think the home court advantage will be quite enough.
Thunder by 2
Game 3: Jazz @ Thunder(Feb 22)
The first game after the All-Star break and this will be the first time the Thunder see the Jazz after a good night’s rest. Although it will be in Chesapeake Energy Arena, I have a feeling that the Thunder will be coming into the game overly confident. Between the two rested teams, I see the Jazz as the better team.
Jazz by 3
Game 4: Thunder @ Jazz(Mar 11)
Both teams will be coming off three days of rest, so the same logic applies as the third matchup mentioned above. However, the Jazz have the additional advantage of being in front of the loudest fans in the NBA!
Jazz by 6
All statistics via BasketballReference.com unless otherwise noted.