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SALT LAKE CITY — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's overtime 106-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from KSL.com's Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Reasons why the Jazz lost the game, ranked:
1. The Thunder have Kevin Durant, who is capable of scoring 29 points in 24 minutes of play in the second quarter and overtime. He also picked us four assists, one steal, and had zero turnovers in that whole stretch.
2. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook, who, besides scoring 14 in the aforementioned second-half-and-overtime segment, also picked up two ridiculous offensive rebounds using insane athleticism with 25 seconds left that kept the ball in the Thunder's hands so that they could use the also-aforementioned Durant's powers for a game-tying dunk.
3. The Thunder have Serge Ibaka, who is a essentially unique NBA player in his ability to both A) make NBA threes and B) be one of the top-5 rim protectors in the league on the defensive end. The Jazz win the game without his 3 to tie it at 94 in the game's final minute, and probably also win the game without his 5 blocks in 22 second-half-and-overtime minutes.
4. The Jazz's offense turned to mush in the final 6 minutes plus overtime, as the team stopped executing complicated sets, instead preferring to predictably run down the clock, then isolate or run one easily defended pick-and-roll. The team shot just 4-21 in this period, for only 10 points.
5-10. A bunch of other game-long trends, including the Jazz's inability to stop the Thunder in transition, the Thunder playing fantastic defense in the paint, Elijah Millsap being ineffective offensively, etc.
11. Gordon Hayward had this crazy turnover on the last possession. This is probably the right pass, but it's incredibly hard to get it there over the arms of Kevin Durant and Steven Adams. I'd probably have kept the ball in Alec Burks' hands on the final possession, against the smaller Russell Westbrook.
12. The referees also weren't especially kind to the Jazz, ignoring some fouls which I considered relatively obvious. A foul here changes things, too, presuming...
13. The Jazz weren't able to make their free throws. Fans seem up in arms about this one, as the team went 12-20 from the FT line. An average FT performance nets them three extra points, a good free throw performance nets them five extra. I've heard complaints that professionals should be punished for having a 12-20 performance from the FT line, but, well, it happened 214 times last season. Sometimes, teams miss free throws.
14-26. A bunch of second-half incredible shots by the Thunder to make some tough looks against what was good Jazz defense.
27. Russell Westbrook's crazy inbound play at the end of the 1st half. It's incredible that Westbrook got it off, and you can definitely make the case that it shouldn't have counted, but it did. Again, another two point swing in the game that mattered a lot.
https://t.co/JqzDNw6Lln — Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 14, 2015
Okay, so that's not a scientific ranking. But in a game like this one, filled with wild runs that eventually goes to overtime, every single make or miss makes a huge impact on the outcome. Once again, the Jazz were one play away, and didn't get it done.
2. A new starting lineup for the Jazz
The Jazz tried a new starting lineup against Oklahoma City tonight. Raul Neto went to the bench in favor of Alec Burks. Burks ended up playing 37 minutes and taking 22 shots, a team high. Neto, on the other hand, didn't play at all, a DNP-CD.
That starting lineup started the game off well, but gave all of that ground back as the Thunder went on a 25-7 run to begin the third quarter. In the end, the starting lineup played just over 13 minutes, and was outscored 30-24.
The other big question with moving Burks to the starting lineup was whether or not the bench would be viable offensively without him. Returns on that note were positive: Quin Snyder staggered the lineups so that each bench unit without Burks also featured one of Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood to act as secondary ball-handler.
Lineups without Burks were +10 for the night, and while they mostly didn't face OKC's starters, that the Jazz won the battle of the bench was critical and a little surprising. That's especially true given that the Thunder's bench is one of the better units in the NBA on paper, with some expensive and talented players coming off the pine.
It will be interesting to see if Neto plays tomorrow night, against a much better matchup for him in Tony Parker, and the Jazz likely needing some squad rotation on the second night of a back-to-back.
3. Despite everything, the Jazz are still in line for a playoff spot
Yes, the Jazz are currently still in the 8th seed in the suddenly thin Western Conference, despite the 10-12 record. And, believe it or not, the team is just three games out of the 4th seed in the West, as the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Rockets all haven't lived up to expectations.
The team's goal is to stay afloat without Rudy Gobert in tow, and then be able to make moves in the Western Conference as they have a reliable NBA frontcourt. Staying in the 8-seed slot would definitely qualify, even if they are getting significant help from the rest of the West.
By the way, on the Jazz's SB Nation site, SLCDunk, a comment was posted that said Rudy Gobert's return could come sooner than previously thought:
Comment about Rudy talking about his injury in a French basketball podcast. It made me feel much more optimistic. pic.twitter.com/ZPbomTGPeN — Diana (@dianaallen) December 12, 2015
This is obviously an unsubstantiated rumor, and the Jazz have repeatedly declined to give Gobert a timetable for his injury, even off-the-record. Naturally, the Jazz will be very cautious with Gobert's knee and his return.
But if that commenter and Gobert's estimation of his own injury were right, that would mean a return at the beginning of January, not the end of it. The Jazz's schedule in the middle of that month features some very winnable games, and having Gobert in the middle for that stretch might mean a good run for the team to move them up a couple of spots in the standings.