No. 4 OKC Thunder vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
2018 Playoff Preview and Prediction
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s playoff time in the NBA, and I’ve got what you need to know for one of the best opening round matchups. OKC has the triple double machine in Russell Westbrook leading the charge while the Jazz look to ride the wave of their rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell. On paper, it would seem that OKC with their veteran core of Westbrook-Carmelo Anthony-Paul George would be the heavy favorites in this series. However, the Jazz has won 17 of 21 heading into the playoffs and with Rudy Gobert back their defense is galvanized. Let’s look at some key points heading into the series.
Regular Season Matchup
The Thunder took the season series between the two teams 3-1. The Thunder won their games by an average of 16 points, while the Jazz happened to squeak by a 9 point win against them. The lone Jazz win against the Thunder they held Westbrook to under 10 points that game. All four of these games happened last calendar year, and the two teams haven’t met since December. Since then, the two teams have projected up, especially the Jazz. Therefore it could be said that the regular season matchups could not be indicative of what will happen in the playoffs.
Jazz Keys to Winning
The Jazz doesn’t have the superstar firepower on their roster like much of the top western conference teams can boast. Mitchell leads the team with 20.5 ppg with no one else averaging 20+. The Jazz is going to have to scheme a good offensive plan to keep pace with the Thunder. Keeping Westbrook from hounding Mitchell all game will be pivotal for their offense. So I expect to see a lot of screens with Mitchell, not too much unlike their regular season plan. However, they’re going to need to find a reliable second option to keep the offense in tempo.
Rodney Hood is going to need to be able to create some offense and probably up his 16.8 ppg regular season average to around 20. The Jazz will have to look to their bench to keep the score close while the Thunder’s starting lineup is off the floor. Utah does have Joe Johnson coming off the bench, and he somehow always finds a way to step it up in the playoffs. If Iso Joe and a newly revitalized Marco Rubio can anchor the bench, their offense may not be in as much trouble as it may seem.
Rudy Gobert, the best anchor in the league, is going to have to be at that level every night. He’ll be posted up against Steven Adams, a fantastic post player. If that wasn’t enough Westbrook will be slashing and attacking the rim every night. Jae Crowder will likely have to be doing duty on both Anthony and George to keep a body on them at all times.
If Gobert can stay out of foul trouble, the team should be excellent defensively. They’ll need to make sure that Gobert stays in the paint on most possessions. OKC has a plethora of guys who can get to the rim, and the Jazz will need to truncate any easy points OKC wishes to obtain.
Thunder Keys to Winning
Russell Westbrook dominating is going to happen. The problem is who will be the Robin to his Batman? Paul George over the last month has been averaging 20 ppg to go with his better defensive play. If he can keep this up, then the Jazz will have a harder time deciding where they can shore up on defense. Carmello Anthony is currently averaging 16.2 ppg heading into the playoffs. However, it’s coming on 40% shooting. If he can up that to at least 45%, he and George can punish whoever Crowder isn’t guarding.
A big key to the Thunder offense is if they can grab a reasonable rate of offensive rebounds. Controlling possessions in this series will be crucial for the Thunder as the Jazz defense is very stout. The Thunder don’t shoot the best percentage from the field in the league, so more opportunities will allow them to keep their usual pace going. Offensive rebounds also allow for more ball movement, something the Thunder will need to keep the Jazz defense on its heel.
The Thunder’s bench is also going to need to step it up. They’re averaging 26.4 ppg, and I’d like to see that average go up to 32-35 ppg. There are times when the offense gets stagnant from the bench if none of the starters are in the lineup. If Westbrook can be afforded some time off the floor this series, it would bode well for the Thunder going forward if he’s more rested.
Keep Westbrook on Mitchell. Mitchell is going to be the motor of the Jazz’s offense, but he’s going against the man with an infinite engine in Westbrook. I can’t imagine a time where Westbrook would not be hounding Mitchell when he’s in the game. Dropping him from 20 ppg to 15 would be devastating to the Jazz offense.
Creating turnovers will also be a massive boon for the Thunder in this series. The Jazz is going to need to keep pace in scoring with OKC, but with Westbrook and George hounding the passing lanes, a dry spot from the Jazz can mean the game for OKC. Adams down low will have to keep out of foul trouble with Gobert. This Thunder lineup isn’t like last year where Kanter could come in to keep a big rim protector on the floor. Should Adams get in foul trouble, Nick Collison and Dakari Johnson will need to be able to keep up with Gobert? Should Gobert’s average climb from 13.5 ppg, the Thunder will be in trouble in the paint.
The Jazz and Thunder are more or less the opposite teams on paper. This is going to be a series of X-factors and who can be more consistent on offense this whole series. The Jazz will need to find an answer to containing the rest of the Thunder around Westbrook, and if they can this series will be in their favor. However, if Westbrook and co. can keep on the gas, as usual, this series will likely go in their favor as the Jazz offensive capabilities can stutter at times.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in 6 Games.