Jazz (35-36, 13-23 road) vs. Thunder (49-22, 28-9 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 7:00 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 109.8 (2nd), Jazz – 102.9 (19th)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 102.9 (12th), Jazz – 102.1 (9th)
The mark of a great team is when the whole is better than the sum of all its individual parts. It has been the Oklahoma City Thunder’s M.O. to rely almost exclusively on the greatness of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And while that has proven to be wildly successful over the past 5 seasons, more complete teams always ended up hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. It has been Thunder GM Sam Presti’s mission since this journey started to complement his two superstars with role players capable of providing the necessary support to take this team to the next level.
While it hasn’t always been pretty, this season has been a testament to the saying, “A season is a marathon, not a sprint.” Through the process, Presti has honestly managed to secure probably the deepest roster the Thunder has ever seen. Now, is there anyone on the bench that can match the production of James Harden or Reggie Jackson? Not singularly. But as a collective, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan now has a war chest that he can throw at teams from night to night that is variable and ever-changing. Durant and Westbrook will almost always be Durant and Westbrook. But now, Donovan can see what is working on a night to night basis and use whatever tools he needs from his roster tool box.
With all that said, a nod also has to be given to Donovan. If there is one thing that differentiates him from former Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, its Donovan’s openness on trying different lineups at different times to see what works and what doesn’t. This season has been his blank slate, and he has thrown a ton of paint splatter onto his canvas to see what sticks and what doesn’t.
The Houston game was a good example of this. Durant and Westbrook weren’t necessarily playing all that great, but the Thunder were able to tread water with Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters picking up the slack. Some nights its Kanter, others its Waiters. Some nights its Steven Adams catching lobs from on high or Anthony Morrow hitting 2 or 3 from deep. Randy Foye went through a 4 game stretch where it seemed like he made everything he threw up. Last night, he was off. But, it was okay because others provided in his place. It’s a venerable cornucopia and Donovan is doing the picking.
This is the fourth and final meeting of the season between the Thunder and Jazz. The Thunder have swept the season series up to this point. The Thunder won the first meeting in blowout fashion, 111-89, in late November. Then, the two teams played a home and home tilt in mid-December that was a lot more competitive than their first meeting of the season. The Thunder won both those games by 10 points total. During that home and home tilt, the Jazz were without defensive anchor Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz come into the game with a 35-36 record, having won 6 of their last 7 games. They currently find themselves in 8th place in the West by virtue of their win against the Houston Rockets the night before. The 6 through 9 position in the West is so close that a 2 game win/losing streak by any team can either boost you to the 6th position or drop you out of the fray to the 9th position. It’s that close.
The Jazz are the definition of a starless, balanced team featuring 7 players that average between 9.5 and 19.9 points per game. The closest thing they have to a star is small forward Gordon Hayward, who is pumping in nearly 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. The strength of the Jazz is in their front court, with Derrick Favors steadily becoming a nightly double-double threat. In the middle, Gobert may not yet have an offensive arsenal, but defensively, he presents a lot of trouble to other teams.
The back court, especially the point guard position, is where the Jazz struggle. The offseason knee injury to Dante Exum put the Jazz behind the eight ball in the point guard department before the season even started. Instead of continuing their development of Exum, the Jazz now had to rely on disappointing third year player Trey Burke and Brazilian rookie Raul Neto. The Jazz’ inconsistent point guard play eventually led them to trade for Shelvin Mack, who has been a stabilizing force for Utah. On the other side of the backcourt, Alex Burks continues to struggle with staying healthy, as he is once again sidelined with a broken fibula that has kept him out since late December. In his stead, Rodney Hood has proven to be a quality scorer and defender and the Jazz may have a decision to make in the offseason concerning their shooting guard position. Off the bench, Trevor Booker and Joe Ingles round out the rotation.
3 Big Things1. Points in the Paint
By most any metric, the Utah Jazz are one of the top defensive teams in the league. They are 10th in Defensive Rating and 6th in total rebounds. They allow the 2nd least amount of point per game (96.5) and points in the paint (39.8). The combination of Gobert, Favors, and Trevor Booker off the bench is one of the best defensive front courts in the league. They stuff the paint and dare you to beat them from outside. Luckily, the Thunder are one of the best teams at causing havoc from the paint with Durant and Westbrook, but both those players will need to limit their turnovers to be effective.2. Steven Adams/Enes Kanter
In their first meeting, Adams frustrated Gobert almost to the point of pouting with his physicality. It will be important for Adams to continue that trend in this game to get Gobert off his game. When Gobert sits, the Jazz don’t really have any one that can effectively defend Kanter. Jeff Withey is just about their only other option at center, but rarely plays of late and Booker is too small to contend with Kanter.3. Desperate Team
The Jazz are literally fighting for their playoff lives. One of the most difficult things to do in the NBA is to beat a team 4 times in one season. The Jazz will come in amped from their previous game, looking to give the Thunder everything they have. On the flip side, they may also come into the game a bit tired from expending so much energy against the Rockets.
Rodney Hood – I just feel like Hood is due to have a big game against the Thunder. In their last meeting, he poured in 23 points on 4-9 from deep.