I’ll be honest with you. These last few days have been refreshing. I haven’t had to worry about the Western Conference standings. I haven’t had to worry about not knowing what Oklahoma City Thunder team was going to show up on a night to night basis. I didn’t have to stress about a Paul George shooting slump. Or worry about Carmelo Anthony aging exponentially before our eyes. Or any other plethora of things I’ve worried about this season.
All season long we’ve heard this would be a work in progress. That this process would take time. And with how this team was pieced together over the summer, that request for patience was not a far-fetched one. Many fans view NBA transactions like they view transactions on NBA 2K. If you put Good Player A together with Good Player B, then both players will be good on the same team. But in reality, that’s not always how it works. The process of putting three alpha dogs together and telling them to play as a team is not something that happens instantly. There’s a chemistry that needs to naturally develop, especially when you think of the other variables on the roster.
But for the process to take the entire season almost required the patience of Job. It was hard not to look at these three All-Stars and sometimes wonder, “What the hell is going on, guys?” If you look at just the Thunder time line, this franchise is extremely young. This is their 10th season, and they’ve made the playoffs in 8 of those years. But we tend to forget that Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka were allowed to meld together organically over a 3-4 year process. They learned each other’s nuances, habits, and weakness over years of training camps, regular seasons, and improving playoff runs. We asked Westbrook, George, and Anthony to do that over an 82 game season, while also having championship aspirations and the pressure of George’s impending free agency mounted on top of it.
That they got to the 4th seed should be viewed as a victory in and of itself. The Western Conference was every much the gauntlet it was predicted to be. But now that’s over. The slate, for the most part, is now blank. While never specifically saying, “wait until the playoffs,” the Thunder have shown glimpses of what they can do when they are fully engaged. Games against the NBA’s elite showed that this team has a comparable ceiling to all the contenders. Luckily for the Thunder, there is nothing more engaging than the playoffs.
Regular Season Meeting
Oct. 21, 2017 – @ Utah – Loss 87-96
The second game of the season gave us a glimpse of just how difficult it was going to be to integrate the Big 3. Utah used their stingy defense to keep Westbrook in front of them and forced him to have one of his worst games of the season. The Thunder point guard struggled in vacillating between scorer and play-maker. Westbrook finished with 6 points on 2-11 shooting, 13 rebounds, 9 assists, and 7 turnovers. Anthony and George finished with 26 and 22 points, respectively, but could not bring the Thunder back from the 16 point hole they had created as they entered the final quarter.
Dec. 5, 2017 – vs. Utah – Win 100-94
The first two and a half quarters of this game felt like the first meeting in Utah. The Thunder were missing shots and the Jazz were able to build up a 17-point lead with about 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Then, Westbrook remembered he was the reigning MVP of the league and did what he does best. He willed the Thunder to victory whilst collecting a triple double (34/12/14). Steven Adams and George joined in on the fun, scoring 41 points combined on 16-23 shooting, while providing incredible defense in the final quarter. For the Jazz, Donovan Mitchell introduced himself to the Thunder while scoring 31 points.
Dec. 20, 2017 – vs. Utah – Win 107-79
No Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert for the Jazz. Only one starter for the Jazz scored in double digits. And the Thunder were hitting their shots, collectively shooting 52% from the field. This is one of those games where the expected outcome happened. Moving on….
Dec. 23, 2017 – @ Utah – Win 103-89
The Jazz played the Thunder twice when they were just getting in their rhythm. This one one of the slow, methodical wins. The Big 3 all had good games and the Thunder wore the Jazz out. The quartet of Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 81 points. For the Jazz, who were again without Gobert, Mitchell was the only effective player, scoring 29 points.
Looking At The Numbers
1. Strength vs. Strength
The Utah Jazz are elite at defense. ELITE! They’re especially good at defending what the Thunder are good at. Offensively, the Thunder rank fourth in Fastbreak Points, first in Second Chance Points, and first in Points Off Turnovers. Conversely, the Jazz rank first in stopping Fastbreak Points, second in stopping Second Chance Points, and second in stopping Points In The Paint.
In the Thunder’s favor is the fact the Jazz rank 20th in turnovers, committing nearly 14.7 per game. The Thunder rank first in this category, causing their opponents to turn the ball over 16 times per game. If the Thunder can rattle the rookie Donovan Mitchell, they may be able to exploit this facet of the game.
Again, two elite rebounding teams. The Jazz are the best at keeping their opponent off the glass, allowing just 41.6 rebounds per game. The Thunder, on the other hand, are the best offensive rebounding team, in terms of both Offensive Rebound % and total Offensive Rebounds per game. Offensive rebounds fuel a big part of the Thunder’s offensive attack. If Gobert and Favors do a good job of shutting that down, the Thunder may struggle with a big part of their offensive attack.
3. Battle of the Benches
Since the All-Star break, the Thunder and Jazz reserves rank 27th and 28th, respectively, in bench scoring. Though the rotations get cut in the playoffs, benches can sometimes be big X-factors during the playoffs. Billy Donovan has done a good job over the last handful of games of incorporating the reserves with different combinations of starters. Sometimes it’s Paul George and four reserves. Sometimes it’s Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony, and three reserves. And sometimes it’s Westbrook, Corey Brewer, and three reserves. Whatever the combination, the bench hasn’t been as detrimental as they have been at certain other points in the season. Jae Crowder for Utah and Jerami Grant for Oklahoma City may be difference makers off the pine for each team.
X-Factor for Oklahoma City
Free Throw Shooting – This has been the team’s Achilles heel all season long. They ranked 29th in the season in free throw percentage. Small things usually win playoff games. Things like turnovers, good defense, made free throws. The Thunder have the ability to turn free throws into a weapon. But as has been the tendency this season, that weapon has blown up in their faces plenty of times.
Thunder in 6. This series reminds me a lot of the 2014 first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Utah is going to try to slow the game down and turn it into a slugfest. If the Paul George that showed up in the final game of the season shows up for this series, it won’t go more than 5 games. But if George and Anthony alternate good shooting games with inefficient shooting games, the series could go 7. So, I’ll take the middle ground.