The Western Conference playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and fifth-seeded Utah Jazz is the embodiment of a Super Mario Bros. mystery block: No one really knows what to expect. And either of these hard-nosed defensive clubs could put a scare into the dominant Houston Rockets, who figure to be waiting for the winner of this best-of-seven series in the next round.
FiveThirtyEight’s projection model has basically thrown up its hands. It deems this the most evenly matched first-round series, giving a slight edge to the Thunder, with a 52 percent chance of advancing (in part a nod to their home-court advantage). And with almost every traditional way of analyzing the teams straight up, you run into dead ends. The Thunder and Jazz both boast top-10 defenses and finished with identical records, at 48-34. Oklahoma City won the season series 3-1, which sounds convincing until you realize that the clubs played their last game against each other back on Dec. 23, nearly four months ago — before the Jazz got their best player back from injury and the Thunder lost their best defender — and prior to Utah catching fire ahead of a key swap at the trade deadline.
Put another way: These teams haven’t played each other in their current form. Given that, here are the most important things to watch during what could turn out to be one of the best series we see all postseason.
Will Westbrook challenge Gobert at the rim?
If there’s one thing we know about reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, it’s that he might be the most fearless player in the entire league, especially when it comes to navigating his way to the basket. But Westbrook has treated the area around the rim like a flaming hornets’ nest when Rudy Gobert, the likely defensive player of the year, is the one defending it.
Westbrook has taken nearly 40 percent of his shot attempts this season from inside the restricted area. That figure shrinks considerably, to just 29 percent, against Utah without Gobert on the floor. But in the 55 minutes he’s played with Gobert on the court, Westbrook’s taken a miniscule 16 percent of his shots from that range, according to NBA Advanced Stats. While it might be fair to dismiss that statistic because of the small sample size this year, it’s harder to ignore when you look at Westbrook’s play against Gobert last season, too: Just 21 percent of Westbrook’s attempts came from the restricted area in the 93 minutes he played last year with Gobert on the court.
Those would represent massive swings in any team’s shot selection, but they matter even more to a club like Oklahoma City because of Westbrook’s aggressive, domineering offensive style, which — love it or hate it — generates open looks for the Thunder’s corner shooters. Westbrook dished out 234 passes this season to teammates who then shot a three from the corner, according to data from Second Spectrum — a figure that trailed only LeBron James.
But if Russ can’t get deep enough into the paint to free up those looks, where is Oklahoma City’s scoring supposed to come from? The Thunder are fantastic at running the floor, but most teams would have better luck drawing blood from a stone than scoring in transition against Utah.
If Westbrook can’t get to the rim against Gobert, look for the Thunder to force Utah to switch — leaving either Ricky Rubio or Donovan Mitchell on a much bigger, stronger Steven Adams.
Can Utah limit OKC on the offensive glass?
The Jazz defense, the best in the NBA by a mile since the All-Star break, is already good at forcing teams into long, difficult 2-point shots. And while Oklahoma City’s gotten less stagnant over the course of the year, it still plays directly into that strategy from time to time.
No team was better on the offensive glass against Utah this past season than the Thunder. And while it’s fair to wonder whether those numbers were skewed by Gobert missing two of the clubs’ four matchups, Oklahoma City actually managed to grab rebounds at an even higher clip (31 percent) when Gobert was on the floor.
NBA stat guru John Schuhmann noted that the Jazz went just 19-21 when surrendering 11 or more second-chance points this season, a stark contrast from their 29-13 mark when allowing 10 such points or fewer. In that same vein, the Thunder went 18-9 when grabbing 15 offensive boards or more, considerably better than the 30-25 record they had when generating fewer than that.
So, for how great Utah’s defense is, if the Jazz can’t finish defensive possessions by collecting rebounds, they could be in for a frustrating series.
Will Rubio and the other Jazz ballhandlers make their mark?
Among the biggest developments in the months since these teams last played: Rubio has looked more and more comfortable in his new surroundings after a tough start in Utah.
He shot a career best on the season from the floor as a whole but also from 3-point range, where he took more shots than he ever has before. Rubio is still picking his spots — he drives into the paint then dribbles out of it without shooting, turning the ball over or getting fouled more than any starting point guard, according to Second Spectrum data run by STATS SportVu. But his scoring is crucial to Utah’s success at this point. The Jazz won just 29 percent of the games (5-12) in which Rubio scored 8 points or fewer, but they won 65 percent of their games in which he had 9 or more points. (They went 0-3 against OKC when he scored 8 or fewer; in the game they won against the Thunder, Rubio scored 16.)
Hyper-efficient forward Joe Ingles, who also has a tendency to get into the paint without shooting but has been more aggressive lately, will also be interesting to watch. Should ace defender Paul George cover him — as was often the case during the teams’ previous matchups — the crafty left-hander may find himself blanketed at times.
Still, finding ways to score will likely be key for Ingles. The two games in which Ingles shot poorly against the Thunder were blowout losses, while his more typical stat lines produced far closer outcomes in the other two games. At a bare minimum, Ingles handling the ball occasionally and creating looks for others will be paramount. Rubio will expend considerable energy staying in front of Westbrook, and Mitchell — the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring average since Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04 — may need time to adjust to this new level of defensive intensity.
Really, we all might need time to adjust to the intensity this series may bring. If we’re lucky, we’ll have a full seven games of this matchup to get us ready for the next round of the playoffs.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
Another thing: How will the Thunder balance using Corey Brewer — whom defenses often abandon in the corner because of his unreliability from deep — versus Alex Abrines, who’s a far better shooter but a lesser defender? Abrines is still recovering from a concussion, and it’s not immediately clear yet when he’ll return. Brewer sprained his knee in the final game of the season but will play in Game 1.