In the Wild West, who will win the conference’s most intriguing matchup?
The best time of the basketball year continues as the NBA playoffs kick off this weekend, with the tight playoff seeding in the Western Conference leading to some intriguing matchups in the first round. The Thunder and Jazz square off in an exciting first round matchup with the winner most likely taking on the odds on favorites in the Houston Rockets. Who will get the honor of losing in five or six to the Rockets?
The obvious matchup to watch in this series is Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell on offense against ‘Playoff P’ in Paul George on defense.
That extra year in college evidently didn’t help Donovan Mitchell realize he’s highlighting Simmons being a rookie with this definition pic.twitter.com/0jS7aMd0Il— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) April 10, 2018
No matter how you define rookie or who you feel should win Rookie of the Year, you have to admit that Donovan Mitchell has impressed all year. On a team not expected to do much after losing star Gordon Hayward to Boston, Mitchell stepped in as a first option for the Jazz and flourished, leading all rookies in scoring at 20.5 per game.
He has to deal with George, who is second in the league in steals per game at two a game, top 10 in defensive win shares, and easily the Thunder’s best defender. Silencing Mitchell is important for George and the Thunder. In games where Mitchell scores 20 or more points, the Jazz are 32-14. They are 15-18 in games where he scores less than 20.
The Thunder and Jazz are two of the best defensive teams in the league. Anchored by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are holding opponents to 99.8 points per game and hold a 103.9 defensive rating, both second in the league.
Part of the reason the Jazz are so good on defense is knowing Gobert will send anything back or affect anything that comes at the rim. Gobert averaged 2.3 blocks per game during the regular season to go along with a 99.5 defensive rating. Gobert, along with Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, and Joe Ingles, are all inside the top 20 in defensive rating.
But don’t tread on the Thunder’s defensive ability either. Though most people think of George’s addition on the offensive end, his value shows up more on the defensive end, especially with Andre Roberson out for the season. George is one of the best wing defenders in the league, and his aforementioned match-up with Mitchell is key. But the Thunder as a whole are a solid defensive team. They also love to turn teams over on defense, leading the league in steals per game with 9.1 and forced turnovers with 16 a game, a key to getting Russell Westbrook out in transition.
Russell Westbrook 17-18 NBA season ranking:— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 12, 2018
1st- Total triple-doubles (25)
1st- Total loose balls recovered (172)
1st- Total fast break points (440)
1st- Assists per game (10.3)
4th- Points per game (25.4)
4th- Total steals (147)
6th- Total rebounds (804) pic.twitter.com/8QmkZPzAQA
Speaking of the one man band and first man to average a triple-double in two seasons, Westbrook is a problem. His statistics speak for themselves, and as good as the Jazz are defensively, they don’t have anyone who can guard him one on one. Last year that wouldn’t have been a problem because the Thunder didn’t have as many offensive weapons. But with the additions of George and Carmelo Anthony, Utah will have trouble ignoring everyone else on the floor besides Westbrook.
In addition to having Westbrook, the Thunder are flat out better offensively. In fact, the Thunder are one of the only four teams in the NBA to have a top 10-rated offense and defense (along with Golden State, Houston, and Toronto). On the contrary, the Jazz have the 16th rated offense in the league and average 104.1 points per game, which puts them in the bottom half of the league.
The reason the matchup between George and Mitchell is so important is because the Jazz don’t have many other players who can create their own shot. The Thunder have George and Anthony, as well as Raymond Felton, who plays an important role off the bench averaging almost seven points and two-plus assists per game in 16 minutes.
As good as the Jazz are defensively, the Thunder can match them in that department. And when it comes to the offensive end, the Thunder simply have too many weapons for the Jazz to handle. As the series goes on, expect the Thunder to flex their offensive prowess over the Jazz. The Jazz will have to be excellent in every single game for all 48 minutes if they want to win this series, and that’s hard to do for four straight games, let alone seven.
Prediction: Thunder in 6 games.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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