The Oklahoma City Thunder are headed back to the post-season after another historic triple-double season from Russell Westbrook. This year, Westbrook rides into battle with five-time All-Star Paul George and future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony riding shotgun. While they are the favorites, the Thunder will have their hands full against the Utah Jazz. Led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell as well as defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have shocked the NBA this season. While talented offensively, Utah hangs its hat on defense, where the Jazz held opponents to less than 100 points per game this year. Let’s look a little deeper into this exciting No. 4 vs. No. 5 match-up.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz Series Preview
The Utah Jazz held opponents to 99.8 points per game this year, tied for first in the NBA. Gobert protects the paint for the Jazz and is the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. At 2.3 blocks per game, to go along with 10.7 rebounds and 13.5 points, Gobert is a defensive juggernaut for Utah. Outside of Gobert, Ricky Rubio has been better on defense this year and leads the team in steals at 1.6 per game. Mitchell has been a pest on the defensive end and Joe Ingles is an above average wing defender. The Jazz are also riding a hot streak heading into the playoffs. They have a 17-4 record over their last 21 games. They will need to be staunch defensively in order to stop the Thunder, who are fourth in fast-break points this year.
Westbrook is coming off of his second triple-double year, in which he averaged 25.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG, and 10.3 APG. The Thunder are No. 1 in the league in offensive rebounds. Steven Adams and Westbrook impose their will on the boards and have plenty of shooters to kick it to. Paul George shot 40 percent from three this year (despite a post-All-Star break slump) and Carmelo Anthony shot 35 percent. Having another go-to scorer and defender in George will help Westbrook compete this year. Playoff Melo hasn’t been seen since 2013, and I’m sure he is ready to be back in the hunt. The Thunder definitely have a more talented roster than Utah, but some would argue that the Jazz are the better “team” in this series.
Which Melo will we see?
It’s no secret that Carmelo Anthony hasn’t been fully himself this year. Over the last 10 games, he has only averaged a mere 12.8 PPG on just 36 percent from the field. There have been a couple late games down the stretch where he has missed clutch free throws and open three-pointers. Now, we all know that Anthony is regarded as one of the best all-around scorers of all time. Expect him to elevate from his slump and perform. As good as Utah’s defense is, Anthony is going to have to be on his A-game if he hopes to help propel Thunder into the next round.
Will the Jazz be able to keep it up?
While the Jazz play excellent defense and have an offensive dynamo in Mitchell, they rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring at 104.1 PPG. Mitchell is still a rookie and has never played playoff basketball. He will probably be defended by Corey Brewer for most of the game, and occasionally George and/or Westbrook. Ingles, Rubio, and Derrick Favors will be counted on for key buckets throughout the series. The Thunder also lead the league in steals per game this year, so taking care of the basketball will be key. The Jazz are outmatched talent-wise, but if they can minimize turnovers and force OKC into bad shots, Utah will have a chance in this series.
Will Westbrook keep a level head?
Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal this year for the Thunder. While amazing, he gets tunnel vision, at times. He led the league in turnovers this year and shot only 29 percent from three-point land. Westbrook has taken questionable shots that have cost the Thunder some games this season. While not the only leader of the team, he should be setting the example for other Thunder players to do their jobs. If he plays like the MVP from last year, the Thunder are in good shape.
Oklahoma City and Utah are two very good teams. This series will be the most exciting out of the first round. With that being said, considering the talent that OKC possesses, I can’t see the Thunder losing. The Jazz are better coached and probably the better “team,” with better chemistry. But they, unfortunately, do not have enough offense to keep up with the likes of OKC. In the end, this will be a competitive series but the Thunder’s firepower will be too much for the Jazz to handle.
Final prediction: Thunder in 6
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