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Chaotic Thunder, Smooth Jazz: Your First Round Playoff Preview

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The Up-and-Down Thunder face the Red Hot Utah Jazz in the First Round. Ben Mertens goes in-depth on the questions that will determine this series.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz weren’t supposed to be here.

Gordon Hayward, their best player in a decade, left the franchise to reunite with his college coach in Boston. The team wasn’t completely lost- they still had Rudy Gobert, the runner up for Defensive Player of the Year. They had other interesting players such as Rodney Hood, who was supposedly going to take over the lead scoring role Hayward vacated, and Derrick Favors, the talented but oft-injured big man whose fit next to Gobert was always a question. They had Ricky Rubio, brought in to try and keep Hayward, a phenomenal passer whose lack of a jump shot always left people questioning his fit in the modern NBA. And a swindle of the Denver Nuggets left them in position to draft Donovan Mitchell, who flashed potential higher than his draft position at summer league. Still- the Jazz were projected by many to finish around .500, not quite good enough to make the crowded playoff race in the west, not quite bad enough to get a good draft pick. Utah, in other words, was headed to NBA purgatory.

It didn’t work out that way. Utah certainly started slow- injuries plagued Gobert early on, and the team fell all to 19-28, capped off by a loss to the lowly Hawks. Per this story from The Ringer, that was the turning point for Utah’s season. After that game, the Jazz transformed- not just into a playoff team, but into the best team in the NBA. They are 28-5 since, and per Cleaning The Glass, have posted the best net rating in the NBA over that stretch, outscoring opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions. They will finish nearly deadlocked with Boston for the best defensive rating in the NBA, with a mark of 103.6 (meaning 103.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), but during their post-Hawks tear, they put up a defensive rating of 98.9. They’ve partnered that with an offense that’s 10th in the league over that stretch with a mark off 111.2 (nearly tied with OKC at 111.4), an impressive feat for a team that starts two non-shooting big men in Gobert and Favors, along with a Point Guard in Rubio who has traditionally been a horrible 3 point shooter as well (he’s improved to league average this year). The starting line-up of those 3 players alongside Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles will nonetheless finish the season with a net rating of +13.1, an outrageously good number. The defense is impressive but unsurprising, but their offensive excellency is stunning, and that’s mostly thanks to Donovan Mitchell, who leads the team in scoring, on good efficiency, as a rookie, defying his draft stock and the conventional wisdom that playoff teams can’t rely on rookies.

The Utah Jazz weren’t supposed to be here. But they are. And the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a pivotal season for the franchise, now must face them.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

These teams played 4 times in the regular season, with the Thunder going 3-1, but it’s hard to imagine four games that would be less helpful in predicting this playoff series. All 4 games happened before Christmas. Rudy Gobert missed two of those games and Donovan Mitchell missed one; both players are fully healthy heading into this series. The Thunder, on the other hand, had defensive specialist Andre Roberson for all 4 games, and will be without him for the playoffs following a season ending injury in January.

As far as playoff opponents go, this might be the series where Roberson’s absence hurts the least. The Jazz have wrung a solid offense out of it’s cramped offense this season- that starting 5 of Rubio-Mitchell-Ingles-Favors-Gobert had an offensive rating of 108.9 on the year, only 2 points worse than the starting 5 OKC will be trotting out, despite having only one above average 3 point shooter (Joe Ingles, whose 44% mark from deep is 5th best in the entire league). Donovan Mitchell, after a hot start, finished at 34% from deep; Ricky Rubio finished at 35%, a career high. The Thunder will help off him nonetheless, daring Rubio to beat them from 3 points range. If he can punish them early, they’ll have to adjust, but if Rubio is unable or unwilling to shoot, the Thunder will slack off him far more aggressively than regular season opponents did, leaving his man- Russell Westbrook for most of the game- free to dive into passing lanes and jam up the Jazz’s beautiful passing and screening offense. Watch Rubio’s shooting early as a bellwether of how each game is going to go.

The Jazz’s cramped spacing will be exploited by the Thunder in other ways too. A favorite offensive tactic of Thunder opponents this season has been to attack Carmelo Anthony, never a plus defender and now past his prime, in the pick and roll. If the Jazz attempt that, Steven Adams will simply slide over, confident that Rudy Gobert won’t be punishing them with his virtually non-existent jump shot. The Jazz should and will still try to attack Melo as often as possible, using the man he’s guarding (Favors) as a screen-setter on and off the ball. If the Jazz succeed in doing this, Billy Donovan will have to decide the question the series could hinge on; how short is Melo’s leash?

The Thunder can replace Melo with Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis, and Patrick Patterson, all plus defenders. Per Cleaning the Glass, line-ups this season that feature Westbrook, George and Adams but not Melo or Andre Roberson have been dominant: A lineup of Westbrook, Alex Abrines, George, Grant and Adams posted an unreal defensive rating of 86.1 across 100 possessions this season. That’s a small sample size to be sure, but Donovan should be willing to give it a shot if Melo is taken advantage of on defense. Donovan famously was willing to pull Enes Kanter, a major regular season contributor, in the playoffs last season after Houston roasted him in the pick and roll, but Melo has far more of a pedigree than Kanter ever did.

If the Jazz struggle on offense, whether or not Melo is on the court, look for them to replace Favors with Jae Crowder. The lineup of the starters plus Crowder, acquired from the Cavs at the deadline, has been dominant, with a net rating of +34.8. It’s not even right to call that a video game number- even on rookie difficulty in NBA 2K, the computer puts up more a struggle than that. The catch- the Jazz allow a higher amount of offensive rebounds with that smaller lineup in. The Thunder, powered by Steven Adams, are the very best offensive rebounding team in the league. Still, the extra spacing this line-up provides will make the Jazz that much harder to defend-simply having Crowder stand at the 3 point line opens up more space for Mitchell and Rubio to run pick and roll with Gobert, and the Jazz’s system is similar enough to Boston’s system that put Crowder on the map in the first place

No matter which lineup is out there, expect the Jazz to struggle more on offense than they did during their terrific run to close out this season. The playoffs are different- teams gameplan harder, exploit every match-up they can, and just go one notch harder. The Thunder will abandon every Jazz player except Ingles on the perimeter until they’re forced to pay for doing so, and that in turn will muck up the Jazz’s offense and force them to rely more on their star player to make shots. And that brings us to Donovan Mitchell.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

In just about any other season, Mitchell wins the Rookie of the Year. Ben Simmons incredible level of play will stop Mitchell from taking home any hardware, but don’t you dare underestimate him. Playoff teams do not have rookies leading them in scoring. It just doesn’t happen. And yet there Mitchell is, averaging over 20 points per game, even in the Jazz’s equal opportunity offense. He can score from all over the floor. He dropped 29 and 31 against OKC earlier this season, with Andre Roberson — a freaking Defensive Player of the Year candidate before he went down! — defending him. With Roberson gone, the Thunder may start with Corey Brewer guarding Mitchell, but look for Paul George to take long stretches guarding him- and with the Thunder helping off other players, look for Mitchell’s job to be even harder. Mitchell has been more than the Jazz could’ve hoped, and looks like a future superstar. For the Jazz to win this series, however, he’ll need to take it to another level. That’s what your first option needs to do in the playoffs. This is the biggest test of Mitchell’s short career. Is he up to it at such a young age?

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder’s offensive stars should be ready for the challenges they will face. Last year Westbrook put up massive counting stats on terrible efficiency in the playoffs, as the Rockets took advantage of the Thunder’s cramped spacing and helped way off players like Roberson and Taj Gibson, forcing Westbrook to navigate a maze of limbs and bodies every time he attacked.

Russ won’t need to do that this year. Sometimes, he will anyways. Surround Westbrook with the 4 greatest players of all time, and he would still sometimes take horrible contested mid-rangers or try to finish against 4 defenders. It’s in his DNA- it’s the same attitude that lets him be so effective when he’s on. How much Russ is able to curb his worst instincts will be a major determinant in this series. Russ it at his best driving to the rim and either finishing or finding a teammate after drawing help. The occasional mid range jumper to punish a defender backing too far off him is fine. Pull-up 3’s are not. Every possession that ends with a Russ 3 pointer off the dribble is a win for the Jazz.

Even when Russ goes to the rim he will not have an easy time- Gobert, likely to be Defensive Player of the year, will be there lurking. That increases the temptation for Russ to settle for mid-range jumpers, but he simply isn’t efficient enough on that shot. He needs to go at Gobert, and either find a way to finish or slip the ball to Steven Adams when Gobert slides to shut off the drive. Adams may secretly be the most important player on either side of the ball for the thunder. His offensive rebounding is the Thunder’s secret weapon, the way they are able to generate extra possessions and survive nights when shots aren’t falling. Gobert and Favors are as good as any duo in the league at taking that away, but it still may not matter. In one of the games Gobert played against the Thunder this season Adams was held to only 3 offensive rebounds, and the Thunder lost. In the other, he grabbed 6, and the Thunder won. Basketball is often a game of finesse and skill, but the battle on the glass will be brutal and vicious in this series- not a boxing match, but a bar fight.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from rebounding, Adams has formed a deadly Pick and Roll chemistry with Westbrook this year, and he’ll need to be at the top of his game against Gobert. Adams needs to be good enough at finishing in the Pick and Roll that either Gobert is forced to stay tighter on him, opening up finishes for Russ, or the Jazz are forced to send a third player to tag him- opening up a perimeter shooter.

That shooter is likely to be Carmelo Anthony, because the Jazz will scheme as hard as they can to avoid helping off Paul George. George has been in a shooting slump in the last month, but he dropped 40 points against Memphis in the season finale, including a cool 8-14 from deep. More importantly, he has always stepped up in the playoffs. Even in last year’s playoffs, with a fairly mediocre Pacers squad around him, George put up 28 points a game, on 43% shooting from 3, all while defending LeBron James. The Cavs swept the Pacers all the same, but George’s play kept every game close- the Cavs biggest win was by 6, and every game went to the wire. This is the player the Jazz will expect to see in the playoffs, and they will defend him as tightly as they can. George will spring himself anyways. Ingles and Crowder will both struggle to defend him, and it takes only a tiny amount of space for George to get off his jumper. George should have the greenest of lights in this series, and Westbrook should look for him often.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

George’s biggest challenge will be the minutes when Westbrook sits. Those were the minutes when the Thunder lost their playoff series last season; for all of Westbrook’s inefficiency, the Thunder won the minutes he played. Adding George was supposed to help alleviate that. It hasn’t- per Cleaning the Glass, when George has played without Westbrook this season, the Thunder are a ghastly -11.6 per 100 possessions. Westbrook will sit for perhaps only 8 minutes a game, but the Thunder need to at least be neutral for those minutes. George-led units have been unable to do that this season. Donovan should consider pulling Melo earlier, and then sending him back in when Westbrook rests; units with Anthony and without Westbrook have done just fine on the season, outscoring opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions. George is a far better player than Anthony, but Anthony, for whatever reason, has been better at leading Westbrook-less units. Donovan can play George and Anthony together to survive those Westbrook-less minutes if he likes, and then rest them together; units with Westbrook as the only star have outscored opponents by 8 points per 100 possessions.

Westbrook, George, and Adams are the players who the Thunder need most in this series. Anthony matters too, but if he has an off series, the Thunder have other options they can turn to- swapping in Grant or Patterson as a defensive upgrade allows them to sub in Alex Abrines, who is equally ineffective defensively but a far better floor spacer offensively- and Melo is at this point a floor spacer. If Anthony can summon Olympic Melo or Hoodie Melo, the Thunder will be able to beat the Jazz simply by outscoring them- if he cannot, Donovan needs to be ready to pull him in favor of stronger defensive players. Melo at his best is obviously far more valuable than Grant or Patterson, but if his shot isn’t falling, he gives the Thunder nothing, and Westbrook and George are equally-in fact, MORE- capable of putting the ball in the basket. If Melo struggles, the question isn’t how the Thunder can replace him, but if Billy Donovan is willing to.

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This series will be determined not by one big question, but by the sum of all the tiny ones we’ve discussed. Can Westbrook avoid bad shots? Can Adams dominate the glass? Can the Jazz squeeze points out of their starting line-up? Can Mitchell elevate his game for the playoffs? How will Melo perform? Can Rubio hit enough 3’s? And when the answer to any of those questions goes against either team, will their coach be ready with an adjustment?

The only thing I’m confident in is that this series will not be over quickly. The gap in skill between the two teams is narrow, and both have unique advantages and disadvantages that the other must prepare for. The Jazz have an elite defense, the best in the league, and the Thunder have a top 10 offense, led by two stars who have shown the ability to turn it on in the playoffs. The Jazz have a top 10 offense, but one with problems- lack of spacing, heavy reliance on a rookie- that are a bigger deal in the playoffs than in the regular season, and are going against a Thunder defense that has had it’s struggles post Roberson injury, but should still have enough skill to make the Jazz’s life tough. In the end, the Thunder’s extra star power and experience, combined with home court advantage, is enough for me to think they’ll have the edge. But it’s damn close, and if just one or two of those little questions go differently than I think, the Jazz will come out on top.

Ben’s Pick: Thunder in 7.