Oklahoma City had a brilliant victory against the Boston Celtics on Sunday evening and will be riding this momentum coming into their encounter with the Utah Jazz. The game against the Boston was thrilling and it was a testament to Oklahoma City’s ability to dig deep and win in closing time. Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder forced the ball out of Kemba Walker’s hands which resulted in a clutch layup for Dennis that won the game. The game against the Jazz will also mean a lot for the Thunder in terms of play-off seeding, a win against Utah will mean that OKC get into the fourth seed. The game starts at 8:00 (EST).
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Defensive Effort - Although the Thunder won games on their East Coast swing, the defensive effort was not ideal. It did feel that the Thunder were letting bad teams hang around way too long before eventually pulling out the victory in the fourth quarter. Those habits will catch up to you when a good team like Boston plays the Thunder. In the first half, the Celtics torched the Thunder defence. Boston had thirty seven points in the second quarter as the Celtic hit a barrage of threes. The defensive rotations onto outside shooters was poor and this cannot happen against a player like Kemba Walker or Jayson Tatum or Gordon Hayward, these guys will hit open threes all day long. The second half of the game was a different story for the Thunder, Oklahoma City held the Celtics to just forty one points in the second half. The tough defence created bad Celtics offensive possessions where the Thunder created turnovers and got transition points. The defensive intensity did not give the lead play-maker a moment to breathe and forced Boston into bad shots. This defensive effort needs to continue against the Utah Jazz. Utah have few dynamic scoring options who can hurt the Thunder. Providing that Oklahoma City can get these guys out of rhythm early, it makes the game easier for the Thunder to win.
- Nader - Abdel Nader’s improvement this season has gone under the radar and has not been particularly noticeable. Nader has subbed into games and done Nader things on offence including shooting contested jumpers and driving into the paint. However, Abdel Nader has improved in terms of efficiency numbers and raw scoring average. By the eye, he visibly looks like a better player on offence. Nader picks his spot more instead of blindly driving into the paint to chuck up a layup. The other aspect of Nader’s improvement was on display against the Boston Celtics. The Terminader had four blocks, a team high and he had countless deflections where he disrupted the play. Nader’s timing on his defensive effort was significantly better than previous years, his efforts to block the ball were done cleanly without getting a foul called on him. Nader also looks to have improved his situational awareness, he has been better in rotating over as a help defender and creating turnovers. Out of the Thunder small forward pool, Nader has made a strong case to be re-signed this summer.
- Free Throws - Although Oklahoma City won against the Celtics, free throw shooting was an issue which I was not happy with. The Thunder had multiple chances to build an advantage at the stripe and on more than a few occasions, Oklahoma City squandered these opportunities. Free throws are free points and it is one of the most efficient shots in basketball, firing blanks on free throws is costly in close games. While the Thunder won, the manner of victory was fairly improbable and the desperation of the trap on Kemba could have been prevented if Adams made both of his looks at the line. In total, Oklahoma City missed nine free throws in the game which is not good enough against the top-level NBA teams. The Thunder managed to survive against the Celtics due to the team’s excellent defence but this will not carry on forever, Oklahoma City need to make a point of knocking down foul shots consistently.
Utah’s Cratering Defence - Over the last few years, the Utah Jazz have been defined by two distinctive quirks. The first characteristic was the Jazz’s glacially slow pace on offence, the other characteristic was the Jazz’s stingy defence. Over the last three years, Utah has consistently been one of the best’s defences in the league and a lot of that defensive ability comes from Rudy Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Gobert is an outstanding rim protector and remains one of the premier defenders in the league but the Jazz’s defence has cratered over the last ten games. Utah rank 23rd in the league in terms of defensive efficiency and opposing teams have been getting an alarming number of good looks against a previously tough, well-oiled unit. The issues for Utah are wide-ranging, Quinn Snyder has a complex system which is difficult to learn but the chief factor has the been the roster turnover. In the summer, the Jazz lost three talented defensive players in the form of Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors.
While Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic have been good on defence for their previous teams, it has been different in Utah due to the team still learning how to play together. The loss of Derrick Favors was also huge for the Jazz as the team lost a player who could play centre and provide really good rim protection. The presence of Favors and Gobert allowed Utah to stick a really good defensive anchor on the floor for all forty eight minutes without Favors, the Jazz have to rely on Tony Bradley for spot minutes off the bench. Bradley is a talented young big but his inexperience can be and has been taken advantage of by the league’s veterans.
Play-Off Implications - The win on Sunday moved on Oklahoma City into the fifth seed due to the Thunder having the tie-breaker over Houston. A win against Utah could move the Thunder up to the fourth seed and into the home-court spots. It is one of the most important games left in the stretch run, it is a game which would provide the Thunder with a solid lead in the regular season series and a good opportunity to get a tiebreaker against Utah. This will be valuable towards the end of the season as the Western Conference is a bloodbath where teams often finish with the same record and seeding becomes dependent on victories against each other.
Chris Paul is an exceptional defender and his post defence against Jayson Tatum was truly impressive. Tatum is a tall, rangy forward with a smooth scoring game who has been incredibly hot over the last ten games or so. It is a tough cover for Paul in theory as Tatum has the ability to rise up and knock down jumpers over Chris Paul with little contest. Paul was not fazed and went to work on Tatum. Chris used his lower body strength and squat build to bump Tatum off his spot. Tatum’s shooting rhythm was disrupted and precious seconds was wasted off the clock. Paul’s defence forced Tatum into a rushed shot that did not drop through the hoop as the clock expired. Paul’s ability to get a defensive stop and be a clutch scorer for the Thunder elevates him into the All-NBA conversation, he has been of the league’s most valuable players. Oklahoma City likely does not make the play-offs if Chris Paul is replaced with another generic point guard.