For over two months, the Oklahoma City Thunder have toyed with the emotions of their loyal fan base and forced them to wait until the eleventh hour before answering some burning questions in every Thunderhead’s mind?
Would a team designed to make a deep run in the playoffs even make it to the big show?
If so, would they get home court advantage in the first round?
Is Steven Adams really a descendant of Drogo from the continent Essos, son of Bharbo and Khal of the Dothraki?
Okay, maybe not, but he will play a big role keeping the Jazz’s 7’1”, Rudy Gobert, in check.
Let’s do this.
1. The Thunder won their season series against the Jazz, 3-1, but all four games included a healthy Andre Roberson and the Jazz missing Rudy Gobert in 2 of the 3 losses. What effect will a healthy Gobert and an absentee Roberson have on this series?
RK Anthony - The Thunder will miss Robes until he returns sometime next season, but in the interim, Corey Brewer has been a pleasant surprise and added some offensive weapons to the mix that have helped make up at least some of the defensive ground between Robes and him.
Gobert’s presence clearly makes the Jazz a different team. After he missed 26 games, 15 of which were losses, the Jazz limped into the All-Star break with a 30-28 record and sat 9th in the Western Conference. Since then, with a healthy Gobert, the Jazz won 18 of their last 24 games (4th best in the NBA) and came within a game of finishing the season with a #3 seeding.
The Thunder won the season series but played a completely healthy Gobert only once and lost. The “just enough” Thunder we watched all season won’t beat this Jazz team, only the team that has, thus far, lived in our dreams can.
J.A. Sherman - The season series record is all but meaningless.
Here is what I’d expect though. It sure would be nice if the Thunder had one Andre Roberson to attach himself to rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell, but since they don’t, it’s not the death knell. Don’t get me wrong, Mitchell is the real deal, but in a playoff series, a defense can and must execute game planning strategies to remove the other team’s greatest offensive strengths. And that greatest 4th quarter strength? Welcome to the playoffs, rookie.
Gobert is a different story on two fronts. 1) OKC has not finished particularly well around the rim this season, with Westbrook, George, and Carmelo all struggling at various times. That doesn’t get easier with the Stifle Tower back there. But more importantly; 2) Gobert can neutralize the Thunder’s aggressive offensive rebounding scheme, led by Steven Adams. That potentially tips the scales, because as we’ve seen, OKC is not the most prolific of a shooting bunch. If Gobert can control Adams and control the boards, the Thunder will have to make material alterations, something I’m not yet convinced they can do.
Dom Flaim - Mostly agree with J. A. but I will say traditionally Adams has given Gobert trouble. But that’s with Roberson around and without him I’m not weighting it a ton.
2. Are the 40 points Paul George put up against the Grizzlies a sign the slump is over or just a bright spot on a long road back?
RK - It’s not just the Grizzlies game that should give Thunder Nation hope. In the Thunder’s final 3 must-win games, George hit on 16 of 34 3-point attempts, or 47%, and has seen his overall shooting percentage climb in each game. Apparently, Donovan’s advise to PG to not just practice shooting the ball, but to practice shooting the ball under simulated game time conditions is paying off. Nice work Billy.
Dom - Like RK here, I think its been a little more. Since the Houston game (granted it’s 3 games but it’s at the least a hopeful sign) PG’s averaging much better numbers and he’s a traditionally great playoff performer.
Sherman - What I liked the most about George’s recent shooting display is not only that they’re going in, but that Westbrook is continuing to trust him, and dare I say, force him, to take those shots. I’d like to think that is something even greater than just the moment of wanting him to hit shots, but for now, that will suffice.
But put that aside. Take a look at this sweet as shooting stroke.
What you don’t get to see in the actual games...this is why most of us beat writers think Steven Adams will shoot 3s at some point. He hit seven straight here: pic.twitter.com/JR6J42J6i0— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 13, 2018
3. Has Carmelo Anthony been holding back and saving himself for the playoffs?
RK - Personally, I think he has held back this season. And to be fair, it makes sense. The last 5 years in New York must have been a tremendous drain both physically and mentally. Playing alongside PG and Russ has given him a chance to take a backseat for a while, recharge the batteries somewhat, and explains why he commented recently that this season has been the most fun he has had in some time.
What he does with the extra juice is an entirely different matter. I know he said his 3 Gold Medals were enough to quantify his career, but I also know there wasn’t much else to say when a legit shot at an NBA championship looked fairly remote when he said it. If he takes the energy he saved this season and applies it toward playing “Olympic Melo” on offense and stepping up his defensive effort (not in the normal way we think of stepping up defensively, but at least on the Melo curve), then Carmelo will be an asset.
However, if he wastes it was that worthless step-back iso move he can no longer do effectively, Melo will hurt the Thunder and probably blows his last shot at a ring.
I hope not.
Dom - As you all know I’ve thought the last few games were a great sign for the Thunder going into the postseason. Unfortunately, no, I just think Melo’s kinda old and washed up. I stand by the idea that his minutes need to be reduced in most instances and at this point Grant likely will be the more useful player.
Sherman - I agree with Dom, his minutes need to get cut by 1⁄3 for him to stay effective in any manner. I don’t think he’s been holding back. But rather, I think it’s better and more useful to compare Melo to a hockey line shift. If he can only give you solid level basketball (like blocking James Harden in the 4th quarter) in short bursts, then my goodness, don’t make him play longer than that. If he starts out hot, as we’ve seen him do over the past two weeks, guess what? It’s not going to scale across 35 minutes. ride the hot streak, sit him down and let Grant/2Pat carry the load, and then hope that the shooting stroke doesn’t disappear when you use him in the 4th. It may evaporate, but guess what? It probably wasn’t coming back anyway if you squeezed another 15 minutes out of him.
Here is what I hope the Thunder coaches and players should know — any time Melo posts up against a guy who is not a Jazz guard, the Utah defense wins. That’s the shot they want, and that’s the shot that earns the defense a measure of advantage, EVEN IF THE SHOT GOES IN.
4. Since Corey Brewer signed with the Thunder, defensive specialist, Josh Huestis has all but disappeared. Barring an emergency, is he completely out of the playoff rotation, or is coach Billy Donovan saving him for more important defensive needs down the road?
RK - I’m going with option B, that Huestis will be sparingly used as a defensive specialist. Huestis is probably a better defensive option than Brewer and clearly better than Terrance Ferguson and Alex Abrines. But he is a wet blanket that stifles the Thunder’s offense almost as much as he shuts down the opponent.
Dom - He shouldn’t be, but he’s likely out of the rotation. Huestis lineups have been far superior to the Brewer lineups, and in Brewer’s time in OKC the team has actually been better with him off the court than on it. Just as a guideline for judgement I’ll say “playing with the starters” involves Westbrook and the “bench” involves no Russ. Per Cleaning The Glass:
In 1046 possessions Huestis/Westbrook lineups are a +10.1 net rating with a 116.9/106.8 offense/defense split.
In 1017 possessions Brewer/Westbrook lineups are a +3.4 with 113.9/110.4 splits.
Without Westbrook, Huestis lineups are +1.2 in 765 possessions with 105.9/104.7 splits.
Without Westbrook, Brewer’s lineups have only played 70 possessions. Given that I won’t post the numbers, but they’re......the opposite of good.
I don’t think Huestis is particularly adding a ton of offensive value, but he’s certainly helping the defense a ton and that’s what they need. Brewer isn’t really adding much at this point and I’m not loving it. Granted, it’s still better than Ferguson.
If that’s what they want to do, then Huestis needs to be a part of it. It’s the one thing he does well! But if the Thunder want to take their chances in trying to outshoot other teams, well, go back and look at the two halves vs the Rockets. One works. One does not.
5. The moment of truth. Series prediction time.
RK - I’m taking the season series record and tossing it out the window. The Thunder never faced the post All-Star break version of the Jazz and the Jazz never faced what we all hope is a better “playoff” version of the Thunder.
I love the Jazz’s R.O.Y. candidate, Donovan Mitchell, but I think a jacked up Russell Westbrook and a cagey vet like Brewer will keep Mitchell earthbound and in the end, Steven Adams’ offense overwhelms Gobert’s lack of offense and the Thunder move on in 6.
Dom - I have a personal no prediction policy due to fear of jinxing anything either way. But Utah being young or not, I’ll leave this here if anyone thinks this might be easy. I’m not confident.
With their top 5 players, the Jazz went 31-18 with a +7.1 SRS (60-win pace) and a -7 rDRtg. With their top 5 players, the Warriors went 25-8 with a +7.8 SRS (62-win pace). https://t.co/LGTIqLzMj7— Ben Taylor (@ElGee35) April 12, 2018
Sherman - I believe the pathway to victory for the Thunder is not necessarily easy, but it is straightforward. Utah’s most dynamic playmaker, and the guy who can win games in the 4th quarter, is facing all of this for the very first time. And nothing can really prepare you for what that feels like. Remember Victor Oladipo last year? He just wasn’t ready.
Will Donovan be ready? I think it will come down to whether his team puts him in a position for success or for failure. If they expect him to be Russell Westbrook’s offensive equal and not utilize the offensive efficiencies of Rubio and Ingles, then Donovan will struggle. He’ll struggle just enough that his percentages will veer downward and OKC can remove him from any meaningful equation.
Likewise, OKC has to commit to rebounding the ball on both ends, even if it means giving up some transition offense when they don’t grab offensive boards. They can live with some transition action, but they can’t live with Adams not having his full impact and giving his teammates as many opportunities as they can to make 4th quarter shots.
If OKC solves that, then their pathway is clear.
But then again...when was the last time OKC played the way you thought they would?
What is your series prediction?
This poll is closed
Thunder in 4
Thunder in 5
Thunder in 6
Thunder in 7
Jazz in 4
Jazz in 5
Jazz in 6
Jazz in 7