Without bias you have to say that Utah and Oklahoma City is the most evenly matched series in the first roud of the West. Both teams boast a Top 10 defense and both had an equal 48-34 record during the regular season.
Oklahoma City fans are going to look at the Thunder’s 3-1 series record during this season as a beacon of confidence, but Utah fans are going to point towards another factor that is possibly just as relevant…these two teams haven’t played each other since December 23rd.
To understand why that’s important you have to see how the two squads have changed over the last four months.
Utah got Rudy Gobert back and he’s now at 100% health. How important is that to the Jazz? During his absence Utah ranked bottom five in the league on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Oklahoma City lost Andre Roberson. While the Jazz were getting their best defender back the Thunder lost theirs. You would never want Roberson at the charity stripe with the game on the line but you certainly would want him on an opponents best shooter with the clock winding down. His size allows him to effectively cover four of the five positions on the floor and his defensive intensity leads to offense on the other end. How significant was his loss? OKC’s overall defense was 12.5 points worse per 100 possessions when Roberson left the floor.
Finally, Oklahoma City added Corey Brewer and Utah acquired Jae Crowder at the trade deadline. Simply put…The Thunder and Jazz have yet to play each other in their current forms. With that understanding, here’s three things Oklahoma City must do to take the series and advance to the second round.
Attack The Rim
Gobert is one of the best rim protectors in the league and as a result most teams rely on outside shots to counter that. Raise your hand if you believe the Thunder can shoot consistently enough, from the outside, to win a seven game series. Yup, there’s not many out there who do feel that way.
Russell Westbrook is one of the, if not the, best rim runners in the game and he’s got to challenge Gobert. Almost 40% of Westbrook’s shots this season have come from inside the restricted area but against Utah this season he’s only taking 29% of his shots from that area. It gets even worse during the time he’s been on the floor with Gobert. In the 55 minutes they’ve competed against one another this season Russ is only taking 16% of his shots from the restricted area.
Aggressive Russ is the best Russ. Him attacking the rim is key to finding shots from the corners. According to data from Second Spectrum Westbrook made 234 passes this season in which a teammate shot a three from the corner. That’s why it’s imperative for the Thunder to attack the rim. Potentially getting Gobert in foul trouble would just be an added bonus.
Dominate The Offensive Glass
There will no doubt be times in this series when Oklahoma City will settle for jump shots. During such times the Thunder have to continue to do what they’re already doing.
The Thunder lead the league in grabbing their own rebounds and, as a result, they’re tops in the NBA at second chance points. In fact, no team was better at grabbing offensive rebounds against Utah this season than Oklahoma City was.
Why is it important that OKC continues to clean the offensive glass? Utah is 29-13 when allowing opponents ten or less second chance points per game. However, they’re 19-21 when opponents get 11 or more. Conversely, the Thunder are 18-9 when grabbing 15 offensive rebounds or more and 30-25 when the number is lower.
Don’t Let Ricky Rubio Score
Yeah that sounds a little silly when you consider that it should be Utah attempting to limit Russell Westbrook’s scoring (trust me, that’s in their game plan) but there are stats to back this up.
Rubio shot a creer best this season, both from the floor and 3-point range. Even more impressive is that the Jazz won only 29% of their games this season when Rubio scored 8 points or less. That number jumps to 65% when he scores 9 points or more.
In the three losses to Oklahoma City this season Rubio scored 8 points or less. In Utah’s lone win over the Thunder he posted 16 points. Do not let this man score!
Oklahoma City has to win this series…and they will. It won’t come without a test though, and that means some frustration is on the way for a rabid fanbase. The biggest edge here is that the Thunder have home court advantage and while I don’t think it’ll go seven games (OKC wraps it up in six) it’ll be huge that Russ and the gang will be playing at home if it does.