6:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Thunder -3.5, Over/Under: 206
The Game of Musical Chairs has ended in the Western Conference, with the Playoff Seeding finally set as the Fourth-Seed Oklahoma City Thunder host the Fifth-Seed Utah Jazz in Game One of their First Round Series from Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It would be impossible to come away from the Regular Season and look at the Jazz (48-34, 5th in Western Conference) as anything less than Overachievers, particularly given their low expectations coming into the year. Granted, they shocked the Los Angeles Clippers in the First Round of the previous Playoffs, but after an Offseason in which they lost their leading scorer in Free Agency (Gordon Hayward, 21.9 PPG), while also playing nearly a quarter of the season without the presence of defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert (13.5 PTS, 62.2% FG, 10.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.3 BLK, 20.7 PER), one simply can’t help but be impressed with the job that Quin Snyder and his charges did in 2017-2018. With Gobert on the shelf and sitting on a disappointing 19-28 record, Utah proceeded to flip the switch in a manner that few expected that there capable of doing, stringing together an 11-Game Winning Streak heading into the All-Star Break, followed by an 18-6 run afterward, ending the campaign on a blistering 29-6 onslaught. So just what the hell happened out in Salt Lake City, you ask? Well, for starters, Gobert got healthy, with the towering 7-1 Frenchman keying a return to defensive superiority; with the Big Fella back in the middle, the Jazz led the league in Points Allowed (99.8), Rebounds Allowed (41.6), and Assists Allowed (20.0), while relegating the opposition to 46.2% Shooting from the Field (6th Overall), including 48.8% from within the Arc (4th Overall), and forcing 14.9 Turnovers a night (6th Overall), with all of that occurring with Gobert missing only TWENTY-SEVEN Games this season. As for replacing Hayward, Snyder & Co. were fortunate to find a true gem in the NBA Draft, selecting Donovan Mitchell (20.5 PTS, 43.7% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 16.7 PER) with the Thirteenth Overall Pick. The Shooting Guard out of Louisville has surpassed all expectations thus far, leaving the Utah faithful asking “Gordon Who?” in the wake of his electrifying play thus far. Apart from the Rookie’s exploits, Snyder and his Staff have doe a masterful job of making this a group that is clearly greater than the sum of it’s parts, which runs counter to the team that they are matched up with in this First Round Series. Veteran Point Guard Ricky Rubio (13.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 15.4 PER) has turned in a career campaign, particularly in terms of shooting the basketball, netting 35.2% of his attempts from Three, representing a significant leap from his career 31.5% Shooting beforehand. The oftentimes forgotten Derrick Favors (12.3 PTS, 56.3% FG, 7.2 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.1 BLK, 18.8 PER) has been essential in support of Gobert, and a huge reason that their play on the defensive end didn’t go belly-up while his teammate was sidelined due to injury. And then there was the midseason acquisition of Jae Crowder (11.8 PTS, 38.6% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 10.8 PER), who provides them with yet another underappreciated 3-and-D Guy, who has been enjoying life much more after leaving LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland. With that all said, one must ponder as to whether or not this team missed a golden opportunity for great glory; heading into the Season Finale at Portland, Utah could have secured the No. Three Seed with a victory, but instead looked lethargic early in what was the second of a rare Post-All-Star Break Back-to-Back, and were beaten soundly 102-93. Instead of earning Home Court in the First Round and avoiding the Top-Seeded Houston Rockets until the Conference Finals, Snyder’s troops will hit the road in the First Round and potentially meet the Rockets in the Semifinals instead.
Meanwhile, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same for the Thunder (48-34, 4th in Western Conference), who despite a Whirlwind Offseason littered with changes, appear to be in no different a place entering the Playoffs as they did a year ago. Yes, we’re well aware that Oklahoma City was the Sixth-Seed in last year’s Playoff Field out West, but a closer look at their resume’ will unearth some shocking parallels to their 2016-2017 counterpart. Despite adding All-Stars such as Paul George (21.9 PTS, 43.0% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 3.3 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 18.7 PER) and Carmelo Anthony (16.2 PTS, 40.4% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.7 PER), Billy Donovan’s charges managed to win precisely ONE more game than they did the year before, as the team spent the vast majority of the term searching for the proper chemistry between the two gifted scorers and the reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook (25.4 PTS, 44.9% FG, 29.8% 3FG, 10.1 REB, 10.3 AST, 1.8 STL, 24.7 PER). After he became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a Triple-Double for the duration of the season, the train of thought was that the Thunder needed to get Westbrook some serious help, hence the Front Office moving mountains to acquire the aforementioned George and Anthony in separate deals. However, it became painfully obvious on numerous occasions throughout the campaign that the erstwhile 7-Time All-Star doesn’t take a backseat to anyone, for all he did was become the first player in NBA History to average a Triple-Double in CONSECUTIVE seasons. That’s right, folks, Russell Westbrook has done it again. In fact, heading into the Season Finale with the Memphis Grizzlies, all he needed was Sixteen Rebounds to replicate that historic Stat Line, and he finished the night with…Twenty. Now, it’s been a widespread debate that this guy’s unwillingness to defer to anyone else was the prime reason that he was able to achieve such a feat last year, while also serving as the catalyst in driving fellow MVP teammate Kevin Durant out of town, not to mention playing no small role in the erosion of Anthony, who has fallen into basketball obscurity this season, and relegated George into a Spot-Up Shooter. Indeed, this has been quite the conundrum for Donovan and his Staff to solve, for on any given night the Thunder possess the requisite star power to slay the biggest of giants, but far too often they’ve played to the level of their competition, with their trio of All-Stars somehow after Eighty-Two Games still trying to figure this thing out. Granted, they did finish the season on an 11-5 run, though it’s anyone’s guess which Thunder will show up in this First Round Series with the Jazz. Oklahoma City won three out of their four meetings with their Northwest Division Brethren, thriving in a slower, low-possession affair that definitely lends itself towards the style of basketball employed in the Playoffs. Defense was (and will likely continue to be) the key, as Westbrook & Co. relegated the Jazz to just 89.5 Points on 43.6% Shooting from the Field, including a dismal 27.9% from Three, while besting them on the Glass (Plus-4.8), and harassing them into 16.0 Turnovers in comparison to permitting 17.3 Assists. Unsurprisingly, Westbrook averaged a Triple-Double over the course of those four meetings, with 22.8 Points, 11.3 Rebounds, and 10.0 Assists on 47.9% Shooting from the Field. However, it should be noted that all four of those matchups took place before the turn of the New Year, with two of their victories coming while Gobert was sidelined with an injured Knee.