Oklahoma City will play the Utah Jazz on Saturday night. The game will be the Thunder’s first seeding game and it is a good chance for Oklahoma City to gain ground on the Jazz in the race for the fourth seed.
The Jazz are ahead of the Thunder but Oklahoma City will have eight games to overturn this deficit. A win against the Jazz will make it easier for the Thunder to secure a favourable match-up in the first round of the playoffs.
It is somewhat strange that the Thunder’s campaign starts with a game against the Jazz. The last time that Oklahoma City were supposed to play the Jazz, the season was cancelled. Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 and the league moved quickly to cancel the game.
The Jazz are not the same team that they were before the league went on hiatus. Utah do not have the services of Bojan Bogdanovic in Orlando. Bogdanovic had surgery on his wrist during the league’s stoppage and will not come back to play the rest of the season.
Bogdanovic was an influential member of the Jazz. His shooting is hugely valuable but it is his playmaking which has been useful to the Jazz. Bogdanovic is comfortable running the offense for a stretch of possessions at a time. The Jazz can share the playmaking load more evenly with Bojan on the floor; the ball does not need always need to land in Mitchell’s hands.
The game starts at 3:30 PM (EST) and it will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
Darius Bazley’s Growth:
Darius Bazley is one of the youngest members of the Thunder roster but his age has not affected his performances throughout the year. Bazley has played without fear and has been a solid option off the bench for Billy Donovan.
It was the same story against the Portland Trailblazers. Bazley showed a willingness to explore new aspects of his game and was undeterred by Hassan Whiteside defending the rim. Bazley has added the ability to create for himself off the drive during the league stoppage and was keen to use these skills.
I liked Bazley’s confidence and I was happy to see Bazley’s comfort level with handling the ball. Ball-handling can be difficult step for young players but Bazley was undaunted. He continually got inside for looks at the rim.
His decision making was not perfect; there were a few times where a pull up jumper would have been a better option. However, it is good to see that the fundamentals of the drive are pretty solid.
Bazley’s dribble was controlled and he did not allow the ball to bounce above waist height. He shielded the ball well from pressure and utilised deft footwork to navigate past defenders.
The threat of the drive challenged the defense and the defense had to play Darius honestly on the perimeter. Defenses had to consider the drive and could not harry Bazley at the perimeter. Darius was able to get good looks from deep. Bazley drained three shots from behind the arc.
Bazley has played well during the scrimmages and there are a lot of encouraging signs for the future. I think that there is a solid possibility that Darius has a really good game against the Jazz.
Bogdanovic’s injury means that Royce O’Neale has been promoted into the starting lineup. O’Neale is a pest on defense and the adjustment means that the Jazz lose that defensive presence off the bench. Bazley will face Georges Niang.
The Thunder played excellent team basketball against the Blazers. The ball shifted around the court quickly and Oklahoma City were consistently able to find great looks. Every player made the extra pass and the team played without ego.
For the last decade, Oklahoma City have struggled to create movement within the offensive system. The game against Portland was refreshing as players willingly sacrificed their own offensive output for the benefit of the team. Dennis Schroder could have easily taken 20 shots for himself but he chose to feed the hot hand.
There were moments during that game where the Thunder looked incredibly dangerous as team. The ball movement cut open the defense. It is one of the reasons why the Thunder were able to generate so many quality looks from deep.
Oklahoma City did over-pass the ball at times. There were a few possessions when the offense turned down a great look and recycled the ball needlessly. In these moments, the offense operated too selflessly.
However, this does not feel like a huge issue. It is easier to correct over-passing than it is to introduce ball movement into offensive scheming. Coach Donovan has to make this an offensive principle as the seeding games commence. Great looks should never be turned down.
The Thunder will need to move the ball and stretch the defense to beat the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are a stout defensive team and movement will be needed in order to create seams that Chris Paul or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can exploit.
Oklahoma City were on fire from downtown against the Trailblazers. The team made 20 3-point shots and it seemed like the Thunder could not miss from behind the arc. It was a strong performance by the team.
The volume and efficiency of the Thunder’s efforts from outside will be difficult to replicate against the Utah Jazz. Oklahoma City made an extraordinary amount of looks while shooting 48.8% on all attempts from downtown. On the season, the Thunder have shot 35.5% on 3-point shots.
The barrage was driven by the shooting of role players. Bazley, Nader and Dort all knocked down three attempts from deep apiece. The Thunder have needed shooting for years and it might be the case that internal improvement will solve the issue.
The Thunder are going to need strong shooting against the Utah Jazz. The Thunder's offense generates a lot of points inside and these points will be hard to score with Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint. Looks made from deep will help to balance the offensive output from the team.
Bogdanovic is a big loss for the Jazz on the offensive front. He is a highly efficient scoring forward who is more than capable of creating shots for his teammates. It is a huge loss and will place a heavier load on Donovan Mitchell’s shoulders.
Quin Snyder has plugged Royce O’Neale into the starting lineup which will help the team’s defense but O’Neale contributes less on offense. O’Neale is competent shooter from deep and can create a shot for himself off the drive. However, he does not create looks for others at a strong rate.
The Thunder need to take advantage of Bogdanovic’s absence. Mitchell’s responsibilities only increase with Bogdanovic’s absence. The Thunder should look to fatigue Mitchell and send swarms of defense after him.
Oklahoma City have a few capable defenders on the roster who can disrupt and attack Mitchell. Billy Donovan needs to use all of these defenders and rotate the coverages regularly. It is important to keep Mitchell guessing and make him think on offense. Donovan is deadly when he is in rhythm.
Mitchell/Gobert pick and roll:
One of the staples of the Jazz offense is the pick and roll action ran between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. It can be difficult action to stop as Gobert’s size makes it difficult to stop him down low. However, neither player seem to have that much chemistry in the pick and roll.
Donovan Mitchell is a score-first guard and will look to create a good look for himself first. This means that Mitchell does miss reads to Gobert. This contributes to the awkwardness of the action; Gobert does not trust Mitchell to pass the ball when Rudy is in a great position on offense.
This issue is exacerbated by Gobert’s desire for a bigger role on offense. Rudy believes that his defense and impact on the team warrants a greater share of the shot attempts on offense. When Mitchell does not find Gobert consistently with pass, Gobert becomes exasperated with Donovan.
The lack of trust and chemistry can mean that the action looks mechanical and stiff. It is an area that the Thunder can exploit. Mitchell will look for a shot himself and therefore should be pressured heavily in pick and roll actions. His tendencies will mean that a pass to Gobert is a low probability option.
Steven Adams was involved in a wacky moment against the Blazers the other night. Adams picked up the loose ball, kept his dribble going and then finished at the rim. It was Globetrotters stuff as Adams was able to keep the dribble alive while the ball bounced close to the ground.
His hustle produced a hilarious moment. As Adams recovered the ball, Melo totally switched off on defense and complained at the referee. Carmelo actually playing defense might have stopped the score. Instead, Adams was able to euro step his way to the rim.
Start Time: 3:30 PM (EST)