Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Series Preview

The Jazz could've landed anywhere from the 3rd seed to the 5th seed in the season's final night. They ended up 5th and will face the Oklahoma City Thunder. Here's a preview of the series to come.

The regular season was quite a ride for the Utah Jazz. The emergence of Donovan Mitchell, the DPoY level play of Rudy Gobert, the 4-14 stretch from December into January, the 29-6 stretch to close the season, the Joe Ingles memes, the Quin Snyder CotY candidacy, and a heck of a lot more. All of those things mushed together to become the 48-win, 5th seed Jazz. 

Unfortunately, the court of public opinion suggests that the Jazz may have been better off facing almost any of the other 3-8 seeded teams than the notoriously dangerous OKC Thunder. The Thunder have star power, a ton of talent, and a knack for playing to both the good and bad extremes. In a lot of ways, they are the anti-Jazz. To get a sense of the possible outcomes here, let's break this thing down.

In-season matchups

These don't teach us much. The Thunder won three of the four games against Utah this year, but all four games occurred before Christmas, and the Jazz have been a wholly different team since then. The teams split the two games Rudy Gobert appeared in, which is probably a better indicator of how they match up, but even then the first game was in the first week of the season.

The verdict here is that we know basically nothing.

What to know about each team

Utah Jazz

The Jazz are good. The Jazz have also been playing exceptionally well since Rudy Gobert's return to the lineup in mid-January. As I alluded to earlier, Donovan Mitchell has carried the offense, putting up numbers that somehow make the Rookie of the Year award debatable despite the insane season Ben Simmons is having. In addition to all of that, Ricky Rubio has put together a really nice season

In short, the Jazz are the 2nd rated defense in the NBA, allowing 103.9 points per 100 possessions, and they're notably better than that when Gobert is on the court. According to Cleaning The Glass, Utah allows 8.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays than when he doesn't. That would take them from the #1 team defense in the NBA to the #29 defense in the NBA. He is that good.

Utah is a middle-of-the-pack offense, but they don't need to do anything special on that end. They actually underachieved, according to scoring differential, which suggests that Utah should've won 53 games. They were quite possibly better than what they showed, and they showed that they are quite good.

Oklahoma City Thunder

What a weird team. Russell Westbrook just averaged a triple-double again, Carmelo Anthony might have morphed into Josh Smith this year, and Paul George is somehow both over and underrated at the same time. One certainty on this team is that Steven Adams will play extremely hard. Anything beyond that is a bit of a question mark. Will George score 40? Will Carmelo get benched? Will Russ take 13 three-pointers? Will everything click and they put up 145?

The Thunder have a very Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on. Utah hopes they get...um...whichever version is worse at basketball.

Three Keys to Victory

1) Winning the paint

Steven Adams vs. Rudy Gobert. Two monstrous interior presences who will give each other fits on each end. Adams, per Basketball-reference, has an absurd 125 ORtg this year in almost 2500 minutes. His DRtg is only 107. Gobert's numbers are 122 and 99. Something has to give. 

2) Point guard play

Russell Westbrook is going to be wild out there. That's what he does. But if Ricky Rubio plays solid basketball and pesters Russ - Rubio averages 2.0 steals per game in his career - that could be a difference-maker. It's no secret that Westbrook turns the ball over a lot, so if Rubio can protect the ball on offense and be a pest on defense, the Jazz would be at a major advantage.

Of course, the same could be said but with roles reversed.

3) Does Donovan Mitchell blow up or shrink in the playoffs?

There's no way of knowing yet, and signs point toward Mitchell not shying away from the moment, but I'm not sure on this one. If the rookie has to go against Paul George for 35-40 minutes a night, it would only seem logical for his offensive output to dip. If Mitchell acknowledges that and makes adjustments, the Jazz will be fine. If he tries to just one-on-one beat Paul George, things could turn sour very quickly.

Best Matchups

I've already touched on the biggest ones, but to reiterate, my favorite is going to be Steven Adams vs. Rudy Gobert. They won't combine for 45 points like Mitchell and George, they won't dish out 20 assists like Westbrook and Rubio, but they are going to decide this series. Whichever big man plays better will be on the winning team.

A smaller matchup to watch is going to be in the 3/4 positions. For Utah, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neal, and Jae Crowder will all be getting minutes against Corey Brewer, Carmelo Anthony, and Jerami Grant (the Thunder basically have no bench, so their backups are less interesting). Favors will get minutes at center, too, but that will just open up chances for those other guys to try to outsmart Carmelo and force him into shots that he apparently can no longer make.

Prediction

I've been high on the Jazz all year long - last year too, frankly - and I'm not getting off that horse just yet. I think the team defense of Utah will force Westbrook to try to do too much (lol at Westbrook ever not trying to do too much) and ultimately shooting them out of games. OKC will look good in at least one game, putting up huge numbers in a win, but the Jazz are ultimately too disciplined, too smart, and have too much Rudy Gobert to lose this series.

Jazz in six.

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