The long NBA regular season is now over and the playoffs can begin. There are a lot of “super” teams that are coming together, some injuries and some contenders who are playing unusually poorly, which should create some competitive matchups. The Thunder and Jazz will meet in one of the more intriguing first-round series.
The Jazz finished the season with a 48-34 record, which secured them the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Utah has been able to win so many games thanks to their elite defense, which allows 99.8 points per game. They are currently nursing a few injuries between Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum, but they did play in the season finale against the Trail Blazers.
Rudy Gobert anchors the Jazz defense with 2.3 blocks per game. He makes it hard for any opponent to drive the lane and pulls down a lot of defensive rebounds when he is challenged with 10.7 rebounds per game. His offensive game isn’t as good as last year, but he still averages 13.5 points per game.
The big surprise for the Jazz this season has been the emergence of rookie Donovan Mitchell. He was selected with the 13th overall selection in the draft and has outdone all expectations, averaging 20.5 points per game. Mitchell will draw a lot of defensive focus and will have to up his game in his first ever playoff series.
Mitchell and Gobert are the leaders of the offense and defense, respectively. The Jazz have Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors rounding out the starting five. Rubio is tasked with running the offense and has done a solid job at 5.3 assists per game from the point guard position. He also leads the team with 1.6 steals per game. Ingles, the three, also makes plays for his teammates, with 4.8 assists per game. He is also Utah’s ace shooter from deep at 44%. Favors is the power forward who brings experience and is second on the team in PER (player efficiency rating) at 18.8.
The bench has some solid players, like Jae Crowder, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Jonas Jerebko and Royce O’Neale, but leaves some to be desired. They rank 21st in bench scoring in the NBA. Crowder leads the bench scoring with 11.8 points per game. If the Jazz want to win the series they need to rely mostly on their starters.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City also finished the season with a 48-34 record but got the fourth seed via tie-breakers. A lot was expected out of the NBA’s newest big three with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining forces, but it took some time for the team to gel together.
Westbrook was just able to complete his second straight season averaging a triple-double, which has never been done in NBA history. He will always have critics who knock him for not being a great team player, but those critics can’t away how much he has done these past two years.
George has been a great two-way player for the Thunder this year, averaging 21.9 points and two steals per game. Anthony has struggled to find his role with his new team, but still averages 16.2 points per game. Steven Adams is underrated at the center position, who plays solid defense. Corey Brewer was brought in to help fill the void that was left when Andre Roberson was lost for the year. He is banged up but expects to play in game one to help round out the starting five. Brewer is a good defender and has shot 34.3 percent from three-point range since being acquired by the Thunder.
Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson and Josh Huestis all play over 10 minutes a game from the bench. Felton plays the point when Westbrook needs a breather and helps steady the second unit. Patterson is a glue guy, who can match up with bigs while also shooting from deep at 38.3 percent. The three-point sharpshooter off the bench though is Alex Abrines at 38.0 percent. Ferguson and Huestis are still young and developing. They rank 28th in bench scoring, which means they will likely make sure that one star player is on the court at all times to help carry the scoring punch.
The Thunder have taken three out of four games against the Jazz this season, but the teams haven’t played since December. The Jazz took the first game of the year between the two teams, but that was before Mitchell blew up and OKC’s big three had completely gelled together.
With both benches being below average, this series will be won by the starting lineups. The Thunder have the stars, but the Jazz have some balance and defense. The series could go either way, but the Thunder have the edge heading into the series.
Paul George was one of the best defenders in the league this season and can guard Donovan Mitchell to slow him down. If he can’t score as much as he usually does, the Jazz will struggle to find who can score consistently. Utah has a record of 17-18 when Mitchell doesn’t play or score twenty points. Their defense is good enough to make up for it on some occasions, but in the playoffs, they may not find much luck.
The Thunder are a streaky team who win several games in a row then lose several in a row. If the Jazz can take game one, a thing every team wants to do, they could get the Thunder to slide. Their best hopes lie in keeping Westbrook out of the paint. Gobert will have to be at his absolute finest protecting the rim and the perimeter defenders have to run Anthony and George off of the three-point line.
With the Thunder taking the season series and the Jazz being led by a rookie, who needs to get used to playing playoff basketball, Oklahoma City will win the series. It may take a few games to seal the series, due to the tough Jazz defense, but they will win the series and advance to round two.
Thunder in six.