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Thunder vs. Jazz Preview: They Goin’ Back to Back

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Utah has a puncher's chance, but they whiffed with their best shot on Friday.

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Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder

The good: the Thunder are on a 4-game winning streak, and its stars are proving that they can lift this team to great heights. Which was never really in question, but still. They beat Utah for the second time this season on Friday, and look to go Back to Back on they heads tonight.

The bad: I’ve seen enough from Billy Donavan to conclude he’s mismanaging the Thunder rotation. After a long period of experimenting, he seems to have settled on his units. A couple of good changes he’s made, namely keeping arguably the worst player in this 2015-16 NBA season on the bench (Kyle Singler) and staggering Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant some more, are masking some of the objectively bad basketball combos he’s favoring. The biggest drain on the Thunder is Donavan’s preferred 5-man reserve unit. He used to hockey-sub them in at the same time more, but now they are trickling in and out during the KD/Westbrook staggers to finish and begin quarters. That group of D.J. Augustin, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison, and Enes Kanter played even against the Jazz for 6 minutes on Friday, but still have a net efficiency rating of -26.0.

Donavan has used the "small-ball" group 29 of its 31 total minutes over the last eight games, and its success (a 65.3 net rating[!]) has been a big story. Over those same eight games, he’s played the terrible 5-man unit 34 minutes, and it’s performed to the tune of a -38.4 net rating (again, !). I would bet that a majority of internet commenters would have rolled out the small-ball group on opening night and used it heavily ever since, so I don’t give Donavan a ton of credit for discovering that the Westbrook/Waiters/Morrow/Durant/Serge Ibaka group is lethal. Remember, Morrow was in danger of falling completely out of the rotation behind Singler at one point, another thing internet commenters somehow had a clearer perspective on than the Thunder head coach.

It might not matter. The stars are at the peak of their powers and are on the court for most of the game. Donavan will play small-ball when he needs to jumpstart the team. And when the playoffs arrive, the rotation will shorten and we’ll see even less of the lesser players. But it might really matter. Kanter appears in danger of becoming an overqualified garbage-man, who gets the ball on the block once a game and fights for his other touches on the offensive glass like he’s Kendrick Perkins. Seeding matters, and the Thunder may be stuck at #3 if they don’t keep fine-tuning to surpass another great team in San Antonio.

Where They At: Utah Jazz

Not much has changed since our preview a game ago, when Thomas told you that the Jazz are struggling on defense while Rudy Gobert heals, and that Gordon Hayward can ball. Derrick Favors has stepped up in Gobert’s stead, but...

The Matchup

The Thunder bigs have held Favors in check in both of this season’s matchups, keeping him at 12 points and 7 rebounds on average. Trevor Booker has been frisky, but he’s not going to impact the game for more than 15-20 minutes. Outside of Hayward, the Jazz just don’t have the firepower to match up with the Thunder, who have let them take 23.5 threes per game because they’ve clanked all but 27.7% of them.

Quin Snyder himself actually told the Jazz broadcasters that his team should be "realistic" before Friday’s game, content if they competed without getting the W. They came close to scrapping their way into the victory late in Utah, and had they not come so close to the knockout punch I would probably expect this to be a trap game for the Thunder. Instead, the Thunder should be on guard, at home, poised to roll to their fifth straight.

Prediction: Thunder 107 Jazz 97

2015-16 NBA Season Game #
(Lost 1)

(Won 4)
December 13th, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
6 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma, ROOT, NBA League Pass
Injury Report: Rudy Gobert (Out), Dante Exum (Out)
This Season's Matchups: , Nov. 23 (W 111-89) Dec. 11 (W 94-90)
Probable Starters
Raul Neto PG Russell Westbrook
Rodney Hood SG Andre Roberson
Gordon Hayward SF Kevin Durant
Derrick Favors PF Serge Ibaka
Trey Lyles C Steven Adams