Game: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Utah Jazz
Time: 7PM CST
Location: Chesapeake Arena, OKC
The Thunder (16-8) return home for one game, facing off against the Utah Jazz (12-13). Here are three things to watch in this playoff rematch:
1. Is OKC overrated (or is Utah underrated)?
It’s about to get real for the Thunder who, per ESPN, have had the easiest schedule in the NBA so far. That strength of schedule should not discount the Thunder’s impressive performance; part of the mark of a great team is the ability to take care of business against bad teams. The Thunder have done that for the most part. Friday’s humiliating loss to the basement dwelling Chicago Bulls aside. Per cleaning the glass, Oklahoma city has the third best net rating in the league, +7.6 (meaning they have outscored their opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions)- over a full season. A team with such a rating would be expected to win 60 games. OKC has earned its 16-8 record.
Still, the strength of schedule is a reason for some trepidation about OKC’s long-term outlook. The team can go a long way to dispelling those doubts this weak, when they face off against 4 teams who will all be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race (in fairness, every team in the West except the Suns can be considered part of the playoff race). Over the course of this week, OKC will face two teams nearly tied with them in the standings — the Clippers and Nuggets — and face a tougher than their .500 record would suggest Pelicans squad in New Orleans. But first, they’re facing their nemesis from last year’s playoffs, the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz, a trendy pick to finish second in the West in a lot of preseason predictions, have instead struggled with consistency out of the gate. They sit a game under .500 at 13-14, which places them 13th in the West (that same record would have them in the playoffs in the East *thinking face emoji*). The numbers suggest a better team than that- they have a positive net rating for the season, +1.3, and while OKC has had the easiest schedule in the league, Utah has had the hardest by the same metric.
The Thunder look better than last year and the Jazz look worse, but OKC, fresh off a loss to a pathetic team that nearly committed mutiny against its coach over the weekend, they can’t afford to take this one lightly.
2. Can the Jazz score?
Utah has the 21st ranked offense in the NBA. Their offense is well-designed; they take a high volume of shots at the rim and from 3 point range. They have been excellent at the rim but putrid from 3 point range, a weakness they partially addressed by trading for Kyle Korver two weeks ago. So far the Jazz haven’t shot much better from 3 as a team in their 5 games with Korver, aside from a blowout win against the Spurs last week. They are 3-2 over those 5 games however. The Thunder, of course, have the league’s best defense, although they’re fresh off of two relatively weak defensive performances against lottery bound teams. If OKC can re-find it’s footing on defense, it could be another long night for a Jazz offense that has struggled all year.
3. Battle of the Bigs
In both of the last two games, Billy Donovan has yanked Steven Adams for part of crunch time in favor of sliding the smaller but speedier and switchier Jerami Grant to center, as the Nets in particular roasted OKC in the pick and roll. It’s doubtful that happens tonight; the Jazz system is less reliant on pick and roll than most offenses, and Adams sized will be needed against Rudy Gobert, one of the best (and most traditional) gargantuan centers in the game. The Jazz are one of the last teams starting two traditional big men in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors; that lineup is excellent defensively but struggles on offense. How Steven Adams and Grant hold up on the boards against those two will be an early bellwether.
The Thunder, who have made offensive rebounding a core part of their identity, were beaten soundly on the glass in the playoff series against Utah last year, at least in part because Adams got in foul trouble in multiple games. Having Nerlens Noel as a backup this season partially mitigates that, but the Thunder will obviously have a better chance to win with Adams on the court. If OKC can stay out of foul trouble and dominate the glass early, Utah may switch to smaller lineups with Jae Crowder as the power forward. Those lineups shouldn’t scare OKC one bit; Grant can easily stay with Crowder on the offensive end, and such lineups have struggled defensively for Utah.
Who do you think will win tonight?
This poll is closed