OKLAHOMA CITY — The Utah Jazz can beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Yes, the Thunder have the three biggest stars of the series: Russell Westbrook was last season’s MVP, and Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have been Olympic starters. When the casual NBA fan sees that, plus Oklahoma City’s home-court advantage, I think the assumption is that the Thunder would walk away with this series.
But if you dig deeper, you see real opportunities for the Jazz to attack the Thunder where they’re weakest. And many of the Jazz’s strengths seem to take steps toward controlling the Thunder’s strengths. Beyond just limiting the Thunder's best plays, how else can the Jazz get an advantage on the Thunder? Let’s get into it a little bit.
Stopping Westbrook from getting his best looks
No one plays with more effort and more athleticism than Westbrook, and that’s why he scores so well. If he gets any sort of head of steam going toward the rim, he’s very likely either to score or find a teammate open.
But he’s not very efficient when taking shots in the paint but outside of the restricted area (33 percent), on mid-range shots (39 percent), or on threes (29 percent).
Here’s the crazy thing: in 55 minutes this season when Westbrook has been on the floor with Rudy Gobert, he opts out of attacking Gobert at the rim surprisingly often. He’s only taking 16 percent of his shots from within the restricted area, well below his usual average. If the Jazz keep him out of the paint, that would be hugely helpful.
The Thunder are also stellar in transition (as noted in Friday’s article), but the Jazz are also one of the league’s best defensive teams in transition teams. The Jazz usually send only one player to go get offensive rebounds and four guys back in transition, and they’re very good at stopping the break. They’ve even gotten very good at euro-fouling, using a foul to turn a transition opportunity into a half-court one. To some degree, this should push the Thunder into becoming a half-court team.
Jazz getting open threes
The Thunder play an aggressive style of pick-and-roll defense, with Steven Adams playing pretty high up on the court, close to the perimeter to limit the ball handler. If they keep that style of defense, that’s what the Jazz prefer to play against. They’ve had the most trouble against teams like Portland and Atlanta that keep their big very low in the paint, daring the Jazz to take mid-range shots.
What the Thunder do is help. They help to stop at the point of attack, they help to stop the roll man from getting to the rim, they help to prevent easy shots at the rim and the mid-range. But all of this leaves open 3-point shooters. The Thunder allow the most corner 3-point shots in the league, and the Jazz will be happy to take advantage.
This strategy worked much better for them when they had two elite perimeter defenders on the wing in George and Andre Roberson. One could guard the team’s best perimeter player, and one could play free safety, ready to intercept those passes. The Thunder certainly did that to the Jazz in their four regular season matchups, the Jazz turned the ball over on about 20 percent of possessions. That leads to Thunder runouts on offense, too.
But the Thunder don’t have Roberson anymore, limiting the quality of the pressure that they can put on the Jazz. And the Jazz have also curbed their turnover problem significantly. Ricky Rubio has learned how to play without throwing the ball all over the court, and even Joe Ingles has improved at this too. If the Jazz can keep their turnovers low, this can be a half-court series.
The Jazz will win at least a game in this series through 3-point variation alone, but they will probably lose a game that way too. The hope is, over the aggregate, it turns out in the Jazz’s favor.
Who guards who is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of this series. Here are the team's starting lineups:
Jazz: Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Corey Brewer, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams.
The default configuration is straight across: each point guard will guard each other, and so on. But there are a number of variations we're going to see throughout the series.
To stop the Jazz's offense, it probably makes sense to have George, one of the best defenders in the league, on Mitchell. George is an expert at screen navigation, which makes him better suited to defend Mitchell than Ingles. That means the shorter Corey Brewer will likely defend Ingles. Brewer can have a tendency to roam and get out of system on defense, and Ingles might be able to take advantage with his ability to find shooting space on the weak side.
Favors will start out on Anthony, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Jae Crowder spend more time on him during the series. Truthfully, I think anyone could hang with Anthony at this point of his career, even Gobert matched up successfully on him when they switched early in the season. Playing Crowder is more about opening space offensively and being able to switch defensively.
I also wouldn't be surprised to see Mitchell defend Westbrook as much as Rubio does. Mitchell is the only Jazz starting defender who can realistically keep up with Westbrook, though I also expect Royce O'Neale to have a long look at guarding last year's MVP. That would likely put Rubio on Brewer, which would let Rubio gamble for steals a little bit more if need be. Ingles could defend either George or Anthony, and having Crowder in the game will give them a ton of versatility.
Again, the Jazz have answers for a lot of the problems the Thunder present. The question is whether they can do both at the same time: if Crowder and O'Neale are in the game, can the Jazz's offense produce 3-point shots?
We'll see. For my money, the Jazz have enough going for them in the matchup to predict a Jazz win in a close series. Given the ability of the Jazz to win on the road, I'm predicting the Jazz win in seven games.