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Preview: Thunder must confront playoff-seeking Jazz

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Shelvin Mack and Trey Lyles have been two big forces behind the Jazz late-season boom.

If only Dion Waiters were actually this tall....
If only Dion Waiters were actually this tall....
W. Bennett Berry

The Jazz head into this game with playoff hopes for the first time since the Jerry Sloan era. This Jazz team, like many of the past, is built primarily on strong team defense. That defense is centered around the fantastic rim protection of Rudy Gobert, and accentuated by a bunch of reliable individual defenders. Case in point: The Jazz are 7-13 without Gobert this season.

Nov 23 (W 111-89)

The Thunder are 3-0 against the Jazz this season, but truthfully Rudy Gobert missed two of those games. Thankfully, the one game where Gobert was able to play, he wasn't much of a factor. From my recap of November 23rd:

The strong play from the Thunder's stars was supported by strong play in the post. The Thunder's two starters, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, combined for 17 points. But their real impact was felt defensively. Derrick Favors normally averages 16 points per game, but was only able to contribute 11 points tonight. Furthermore, as a team, the Jazz had just 13 makes on 30 attempts in the paint.

Also, Ibaka and Adams had 7 blocks that were key in increasing the pace of the game. The Thunder were successful at having their way with the pace in general, forcing the Jazz into 21 turnovers on the night. That's five more than what the Jazz average. Durant and Waiters led the way in this category, grabbing four steals each. Both Durant and Waiters were terrific as help defenders, running over to steal the ball around a screen or pressure in the backcourt. Overall, the Thunder scored 28 fast break points, while the Jazz only scored 11.

It's interesting that the Thunder were able to force the Jazz into turnovers, as the Thunder aren't normally a good pressure team. But the Jazz operate heavily with pick and rolls, and don't have a ton of terrific offensive weapons. If you can shut down Favors as an option and Hayward isn't hitting, it's easy to handle the Jazz offense.

December 11th (W 94-90)

Without Gobert on the floor, it was easy for the Thunder to shut down Gobert on December 11th. But there was some unlikely drama surrounding KD. From J.A. Sherman's recap:

Lastly, the Thunder defense deserves platitudes for having a game plan that gave the Jazz guards room to shoot, but took away their inside game of Derrick Favors, who was held by Steven Adams and company to only 13 points.

...

Hayward played an effective defensive game against Durant, taking a page out of the Tony Allen playbook by playing aggressive and physical against KD. Durant mostly played a passive game on the night, held to only 10 points through 3 quarters, working to set up his teammates. Playing too aggressively against KD can lead to a parade to the free throw line and foul trouble, but Hayward did a good job balancing the line.

However, with the game on the line, Durant took the team on his back and made every shot that mattered. Sometimes, that's enough.

Dec 13 (W 104-98)

When the Thunder faced the Jazz again two days later, on December 13th, Durant arguably did a better job of scoring. KD went for 31 that night on nearly 60% shooting, with 6 assists and 4 turnovers. The Thunder particularly benefited from KD in the fourth, when he scored or assisted on all of the Thunder's points after the 7.5 minute mark.

But it was the poor Jazz offense that would win OKC the game on December 13th. From my recap:

Just from having seen the game, I've come to the conclusion that the Jazz just don't shoot threes that well. The Thunder were giving them decent attempts, but they still only shot 36% as a team. Coach Quin Snyder probably recognized this from last Friday, and played Joe Ingles today. Unfortunately for them, Ingles missed three attempts from three in just 7 minutes of action. The Jazz also shot just 12-20 from the free throw line. Really, it came down to the Jazz not being able to capitalize on a good performance on the boards and in terms of turnovers.

New Jazz weapons, and how they affect tonight

That doesn't bode well for tonight, because the Jazz have had a couple of significant upgrades that make them more competitive. Shelvin Mack was part of a three team trade just before the deadline, in which the Jazz gave up a second round pick to Chicago, and got Shelvin Mack from Atlanta. The other Jazz upgrade is Trey Lyles, who has found his groove over the course of the season as a rookie. From AllThatAmar's wonderful Downbeat column:

In 16 games with the Jazz, [Shelvin Mack] is averaging 12.7 points, 5.9 assists, 4 rebounds and just under a steal per game. That's...well, significantly better than Trey Burke (10.6 pts, 2.4 ast, 1.8 reb, 0.6 stl) or Raul Neto (6.2 pts, 2.2 ast, 1.4 reb, 0.8 stl). Mack is hitting threes at a 47 percent clip, almost 14 percentage points above his career average of .332. He's threatening triple-doubles on the regular. He has been, in short, a revelation.

...

What a difference a few months -- and some extended playing time due to injuries -- can make. In 14 games since Jan. 1 where Lyles played 20+ minutes, he averaged 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds. And it's not just when he gets more court time. In the month of March alone, Lyles has scored in double digits three times when playing UNDER 20 minutes. Dude is making the most of his opportunities, is what I'm saying.

With the additional range of Shelvin Mack and the added scoring presence of Trey Lyles up front, the Jazz are a real force to be reckoned with. Over the past 7 games, the Jazz have gone 6-1. The Jazz most recent win was last night, against the Houston Rockets. Rodney Hood had a critical drive and dish to Favors at the rim with just 1.6 seconds to go to seal that game. Both Lyles and Mack were on the floor for that final possession.

Undoubtedly, today will be a real challenge for the Thunder bigs. Steven Adams will have to be an effective founter for Derrick Favors' post moves. Serge Ibaka will have to defend out to the three point line on Trey Lyles. And Enes Kanter, who hasn't scored more than 11 against the Jazz this season, will have to bang with the longer Gobert in the post. At the end of the day, I think all that comes out a wash.

The result will really come down to the Thunder's ability to handle the ball and play efficient offense. The Jazz are likely going to win the turnover battle and the rebounding battle. It will be up to guys like KD and Westbrook to keep up the scoring against subpar defenders. Gordon Hayward isn't the worst, but he doesn't have the athleticism or length to regularly tango with KD. And the Jazz don't really have a long win to wrap up Westbrook.

I'm predicting that the Thunder go for the sweep tonight, just because they're rested and at home. The Jazz new options will certainly make them competitive tonight, but I still think that KD and Westbrook is a more powerful clutch combo.

Also, I'm keeping an eye on rotations tonight. Morrow shot really well in games against Houston and Indiana, with Kyle Singler hurt and out of the rotation. Whenever Singler comes back (possibly tonight), it will be interesting to see who fills that 9th man wing spot.

Cameron Payne has seen regular minutes over the past 5 games, and seems to be slowly moving back into the point guard role. Hopefully that also continues.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 99, Utah Jazz 95.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 72
@
35-36
(Won 2)

49-22
(Won 5)
March 24th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain Plus
Injury Report: Kyle Singler (Questionable), Alec Burks (Out), Dante Exum (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 23 (W 111-89), Dec 11 (W 94-90), Dec 13 (W 104-98)
Probable Starters
Shelvin Mack PG Russell Westbrook
Rodney Hood SG Andre Roberson
Gordon Hayward SF Kevin Durant
Derrick Favors PF Serge Ibaka
Rudy Gobert C Steven Adams