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2012-2013 Game 17 Preview: Jazz and Thunder Battle for Northwest Division

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The Thunder really haven't had a serious division battle since 2010. What about this year?

Now that's what I call defense!
Now that's what I call defense!
Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

2012-2013 NBA Season
The Utah Jazz (9-7)
The Oklahoma City Thunder (11-4)
November 30th, 2012
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM CST
Fox Sports Net Oklahoma, ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain Plus
WWLS the Sports Animal (98.1), Fox Sports Radio (97.5)
Enemy Blogs: SLC Dunk, Salt City Hoops
Previous Meetings: None
Probable Starters
Mo Williams/Jamaal Tinsley PG Russell Westbrook
Randy Foye SG Thabo Sefolosha
Marvin Williams SF Kevin Durant
Paul Milsap PF Serge Ibaka
Al Jefferson C Kendrick Perkins

The Thunder really haven't had a serious division battle since 2010, when the Thunder, Jazz, Blazers, and Nuggets were all serious contenders for the crown. In 2011, The Thunder were only 5 games ahead of Denver, but the positioning was never a serious battle, though the Thunder did battle them in the playoffs. In 2012, we were nine games ahead of Denver, and the division race had already been basically decided with two months of the season left.

What about this year? Well, after 16 games, it's looking like it will shape up much as the 2012 race did. Oklahoma City continues to dominate at the top of the Western Conference, while Utah and Denver are middle of the pack playoff teams that probably won't come close to touching OKC's record. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Portland are firmly out of the playoffs.

But, as I said, we're only 16 games in. Even though the Thunder look great right now, a win by the Jazz would narrow the gap between the two teams to just two games, a very achievable hump in an 82 game season.

So, just how good are the Utah Jazz? Well, I will say that they've had a fairly easy schedule, with wins over the Hornets, Raptors, Wizards, Kings, and Suns. They've even had a couple of bad losses to the Hornets and Kings, and have not defeated a team that's over .500. Then again, they've only faced three teams over .500.

Statistically, the Jazz offense relies on a lot of free throws and offensive rebounds. Since they have the deepest front court in the league consisting of Paul Milsap, Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors, that fact isn't all that surprising. They have a few decent pass oriented guards to feed the bigs in Mo Williams, Jamaal Tinsley, and Earl Watson. The guards work well enough when it comes to passing, but when it comes to back court scoring, this team really struggles. None of their three top scoring guards (Foye, Hayward, and Williams) shoot over 42%.

Defensively, the same problem arises. Opposing bigs will really struggle with their shooting, when the other team has a legitimate big, the Jazz will struggle to defend drive-first guards. Tony Parker, Tyreke Evans, Jose Calderon, and Mike Conley have all been able to find success while their bigs struggled.

When you look at the Jazz as a whole, they also seem to have a problem with their starting lineup. AllThatAmar does a good job of explaining the situation over at SLC Dunk, but in short, the problem seems to be that the Jazz are starting two power forwards and benching two centers. So when the subs come in, they look better because they're playing a more viable lineup.

You also have to realize that due to the inconsistency of their guards and the ineffectiveness of their lineups, the Jasz are massively inconsistent. On Monday they came back from a 16 point deficit to beat the Nuggets. They've only gotten blown out once and tend to find their way out of big holes, but their biggest weakness in this sense is that they can be outscored. They don't handle the ball well in fast-scoring situations, so if the Thunder can get a few key turnovers at the right moments, it would be enough to establish a sizeable lead.

All in all, the Thunder match up with the Jazz well. They've got a core of three big men that should be able to keep the Jazz from outright lighting the world on fire, and Ibaka should keep the bigs distracted enough to open up the lane for Durant and Westbrook. There's also the advantage that Mo Williams will be a game-time decision, forcing the Jazz to start Tinsley and give old man Earl Watson heavy minutes. (He's still a former Thunder player, by the way.)

In my opinion, this game is just set up for Westbrook to really shine as a scorer. Durant doesn't have much stopping him either, but the game just seemed to be tailor-made for Westbrook. Tinsley and Watson are 34 and 33, respectively. Westbrook took Watson's starting job back in 2008. Ibaka can space the floor and open up the lane. The Jazz don't defend transition well. Russ will thrive in this environment, mark it down.

I'll go ahead and predict a 10 point victory. The Jazz look solid on paper, but when you consider the quality of their opponents and the likelihood the Mo Williams will be out, I just don't see them winning this game unless the Thunder's interior defense just decides to check out for the night. Our dominance of the Northwest Division starts today. But remember, the higher they are, the harder they fall.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 101, Utah Jazz 91.

If you are looking for tickets to upcoming games, you can find Oklahoma City Thunder tickets here.