9:05 PM EST – Line: Jazz -3, Over/Under: 226
With the Playoffs on the horizon, what better way to warm up for the Postseason than with a rematch from last year, as the Utah Jazz play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a clash of western powers form Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah? If you’re one of those individuals who takes considerable in momentum this time of year, then you’re probably concerned for the Thunder (40-26, T-4th in Western Conference), who have struggled mightily since the All-Star Break, and as a result have fallen down the proverbial pecking order in the Western Conference into a Fourth Place Tie with the Portland Trail Blazers. Losers of six of nine since the Break, Oklahoma City may very well be playing with fire at one of the most inopportune of times, though they still have a bit of a cushion to play with, leading their opponent tonight in the Standings by 2.5 Games. However, Billy Donovan can’t be satisfied with this turn of events, particularly when you consider that his charges entered the All-Star Break on quite a roll, winning eleven out of thirteen contests. Now they face possibly losing Home Court Advantage in the First Round, which would be very damaging to a team that enjoys one the benefit of one of the louder crowds in the league. With that said, a meeting with the Jazz, who eliminated them in last year’s Playoffs, may just be what the doctor ordered, for the Thunder have taken each of their previous three meetings, including a 149-148 Double-Overtime Epic just two weeks ago. On that night, they received herculean efforts from both Russell Westbrook (23.1 PTS, 42.8% FG, 28.1% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 10.5 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.4 BLK, 20.8 PER) and Paul George (28.4 PTS, 44.1% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 4.2 AST, 2.2 STL, 0.4 BLK, 24.0 PER), who accounted for a staggering Eighty-Eight Points, Twenty-Four Rebounds, Fifteen Assists, and Three Steals, though the former fouled out in the first extra period, while the latter scored the game-winning floater through the lane over the outstretched arm of Utah’s towering Rudy Gobert. In three meetings with them, Oklahoma City has shot the ball relatively well, knocking down 48.0% of their Field Goal Attempts, including 39.0% from beyond the arc, while getting to the Charity Stripe quite often, attempting 28.3 Free-Throws in those matchups. Furthermore, they’ve been successful in swarming the Jazz on the defensive end, forcing an average of 190 Turnovers in those three affairs, which has helped make up for the fact that they’ve permitted 32.7 Assists, failing to halt their ball-movement. Granted, those figures a bit inflated due to that aforementioned Double-Overtime contest, but the fact remains that they’ve been largely fortunate to have escaped, for on that day, the visitors shot a healthy 49.5% from the field, including 18-of-40 from downtown (45.0%), handing out Thirty-Three Assists, and decisively winning the battel on the boards, outrebounding them 61-43.
If that tilt implied anything, it’s that if the Thunder perform like they have of late, then they’re going to be in for a rude awakening in Salt Lake City. Since the All-Star Break, Oklahoma City has struggled on both ends of the court, shooting just 42.8% from the field, including 31.0% from the perimeter, and just 70.4% from the Free-Throw Line, which are all well below the figures that they established prior to the Break. Furthermore, they’ve been getting absolutely WORKED on the defensive end of the court, allowing 119.3 Points (opposed to 110.2 beforehand) on 46.5% shooting, including 38.1% from three, 24.1 Assists in comparison to 14.2 Turnovers, all the while getting outrebounded by 0.4 Boards per Game. This is a team that has long relied on their ability create havoc and chaos on defense translating to easy opportunities on the opposite end of floor, and lately they simply haven’t gotten enough of them to make a positive difference. This was certainly the case when we saw them last, dropping a 110-118 loss on the road to the Los Angeles Clippers. Donovan’s troops managed to force just Ten Turnovers and were bested on the glass 53-52, which meant that they had to create for themselves on the offensive end, particularly in the Half Court, where matters typically just degenerate into a Westbrook/George isolation fest. The visitors shot a dismal 40.2% from the field, including 11-of-44 from beyond the arc (25.0%), and couldn’t even make up the difference at the Stripe, where they missed Nine of their Twenty-Six Free-Throws (65.4%). Sure, Westbrook had Thirty-Two Points on a stellar 12-of-23 shooting overall (52.2%), to go with Eight Rebounds and Seven Assists, but he was 2-of-9 from distance, and the rest of his teammates were miserable shooting 29-of-79 (36.7%). George, in particular struggled, scoring Fifteen Points on 5-of-16 shooting (31.3%) and committed Five Turnovers. With all that said, the biggest difference in the game came from the Charity Stripe; while the visiting side struggled, the hosts planted their flag, calmly netting 31-of-46 Free-Throws, outscoring the Thunder by Fourteen Points, which was the ultimately factor in a close game. This continues a disturbing trend for George, who very well may be suffering from serious fatigue, for his shooting percentages have plummeted since the Break, knocking down just 34.8% of his attempts overall and 26.5% from three.
Meanwhile, just as they did a year ago, the Jazz (37-28, 6th in Western Conference) are in the midst of another post All-Star Break surge, which if they continue on this path, they could climb even higher in the Standings. As it stands now, Utah sit in Sixth Place out West, 2.5 Games behind their Northwest Division rivals the Portland Trail Blazers and tonight’s opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder. While they’ve been hot since the Break, it’s would be inaccurate to proclaim the time off as the lone reason for the improved play, for Quin Snyder’s charges really started to get their @#$% together back in late December; since December 19th, they’ve gone a solid 23-11, and have since won five of eight since the All-Star Break. As was the case last season, this current stretch can be attributed to a simple return to health. Point Guard Ricky Rubio (12.9 PTS, 40.3% FG, 32.2% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 13.2 PER) missed nine games with an ailing hip, while Sophomore Shooting Guard Donovan Mitchell (23.5 PTS, 42.4% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.4 BLK, 16.4 PER) has overcome early bumps and bruises (not to mention serious shooting woes) to recapture his scintillating rookie form. Either way, as the Thunder slide in the opposite direction, the Jazz continue to trend upwards since the Break, averaging 117.4 Points on 46.4% shooting from the field, including 37.1% from beyond the arc, dishing out 27.1 Assists in comparison to 15.1 Turnovers, while bullying their opposition on the glass, outrebounding them by 4.0 Boards per Game. Defensively, they’ve relegated opponents to 113.8 Points on 4.0% shooting from the floor, including 35.9% from downtown. Mitchell, as we touched upon earlier, seems to have benefitted the most from the rest, looking like the player that we all expected him to at the beginning of the campaign; the second-year standout has averaged 30.5 Points on 45.7% shooting, including 41.3% from beyond the arc, along with 5.0 Rebounds, and 5.1 Assists, which is a stark contrast from the 22.4 Points he put up on 41.8% shooting overall and 32.2% from three beforehand. It’s important that he separates himself from what is one of the more balanced rotations in the league, featuring six different players scoring in double-figures. Snyder will call upon Mitchell to help facilitate the Offense even more, for Utah could very well be without all over their Point Guards tonight; Rubio (Hip), along with Raul Neto (Hamstring) and Dante Exum (Ankle) are all nursing various maladies, with the former two listed as Day-to-Day, and the latter still continuing his rehabilitation from ankle surgery. The revolving door at his position has played a large role in this team’s inconsistencies in taking care of the basketball, as they have averaged 15.3 Turnovers per Game (24th Overall), with a Turnover Percentage of 13.6% (28th Overall). Of course, that’s what happens when you have players not used to initiating the Offense doing so.
This was the case when we last saw the Jazz, who inexplicably dropped what should have been by all means an easy win against the Memphis Grizzlies, instead losing 104-114. Utah never quite looked like they were up to the challenge of going into the home of one of the worst teams in the league, and proving their mettle. However, without a cadre of Point Guards, there wasn’t much creativity to be had, as the visiting side managed to shoot just 42.7% from the field, along with a dismal performance from the Free-Throw Line (16-of-24), and were outrebounded 41-43. But, if we’re being completely honest, it wasn’t their poor showing on the offensive end that cost them a valuable victory. No, it was their lax effort on Defense that earned them such an outcome. Snyder had to be nauseous watching his troops yield 51.1% shooting from the field, including 9-of-22 from beyond the arc (40.9%). We’re guessing that the reason for allowing Mike Conley Jr torch them for Twenty-Eight Points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%) was due to Rubio, Neto, and Exum all sidelined with injury. Then again, what was the excuse for Jonas Valanciunas dropping Twenty-Seven Points on 12-of-17 shooting (70.6%), when you have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (15.4 PTS, 65.1% FG, 12.8 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.3 BLK, 24.1 PER) patrolling the painted area? The towering Frenchman was largely invisible in this one, folks, totaling just Nine Points and Seven Rebounds, despite compiling Five Blocks. Honestly, the only thing that even kept Utah in the game, was the fact that they knocked down Eighteen Three-Pointers, but needed a franchise record Forty-Eight Attempts to achieve that number. The presence of a heady Point Guard like Rubio, would have balanced that shot distribution out a lot, instead of just bombing away from beyond the arc. That was the performance of a team that was fresh out of ideas, folks, which at the end of the day could be this team’s Achilles Heel.