The Western Convention playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder and fifth-seeded Utah Jazz is the embodiment of a Super Mario Bros. mystery block: Nobody actually is aware of what to anticipate. And both of those hard-nosed defensive golf equipment might put a scare into the dominant Houston Rockets, who determine to be ready for the winner of this best-of-seven sequence within the subsequent spherical.
FiveThirtyEight’s projection mannequin has mainly thrown up its palms. It deems this essentially the most evenly matched first-round sequence, giving a slight edge to the Thunder, with a 52 percent chance of advancing (partially a nod to their home-court benefit). And with nearly each conventional method of analyzing the groups straight up, you run into useless ends. The Thunder and Jazz each boast top-10 defenses and finished with identical records, at 48-34. Oklahoma Metropolis gained the season sequence Three-1, which sounds convincing till you notice that the golf equipment performed their final recreation in opposition to one another again on Dec. 23, almost 4 months in the past — earlier than the Jazz got their best player back from injury and the Thunder lost their best defender — and prior to Utah catching fire forward of a key swap at the trade deadline.
Put one other method: These groups haven’t performed one another of their present kind. Provided that, listed here are a very powerful issues to observe throughout what might grow to be the most effective sequence we see all postseason.
Will Westbrook problem Gobert on the rim?
If there’s one factor we find out about reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, it’s that he is likely to be the most fearless player in the entire league, particularly in relation to navigating his technique to the basket. However Westbrook has handled the world across 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 almost 40 p.c of his shot makes an attempt this season from contained in the restricted space. That determine shrinks significantly, to simply 29 p.c, in opposition to Utah with out Gobert on the ground. However within the 55 minutes he’s performed with Gobert on the courtroom, Westbrook’s taken a miniscule 16 p.c of his pictures from that vary, in response to NBA Superior Stats. Whereas it is likely to be truthful to dismiss that statistic due to the small pattern dimension this 12 months, it’s tougher to disregard once you have a look at Westbrook’s play in opposition to Gobert final season, too: Simply 21 p.c of Westbrook’s makes an attempt got here from the restricted space within the 93 minutes he performed final 12 months with Gobert on the courtroom.
These would characterize huge swings in any crew’s shot choice, however they matter much more to a membership like Oklahoma Metropolis due to Westbrook’s aggressive, domineering offensive type, which — like it or hate it — generates open seems to be for the Thunder’s nook shooters. Westbrook dished out 234 passes this season to teammates who then shot a 3 from the nook, in response to information from Second Spectrum — a determine that trailed solely LeBron James.1
But when Russ can’t get deep sufficient into the paint to unlock these seems to be, the place is Oklahoma Metropolis’s scoring supposed to return from? The Thunder are fantastic at running the floor, however most groups would have higher luck drawing blood from a stone than scoring in transition against Utah.
If Westbrook can’t get to the rim in opposition to Gobert, search for the Thunder to pressure Utah to modify — leaving both Ricky Rubio or Donovan Mitchell on a a lot larger, stronger Steven Adams.
Can Utah restrict OKC on the offensive glass?
The Jazz protection, the best in the NBA by a mile for the reason that All-Star break, is already good at forcing teams into lengthy, tough 2-point pictures. And whereas Oklahoma Metropolis’s gotten much less stagnant over the course of the 12 months, it still plays directly into that strategy occasionally.
But when there’s a saving grace for the Thunder, it’s that they not solely rebound their own misses on the NBA’s greatest fee, however additionally they score more than any team off these second possibilities.
No crew was higher on the offensive glass against Utah this previous season than the Thunder. And whereas it’s truthful to wonder if these numbers had been skewed by Gobert lacking two of the golf equipment’ 4 matchups, Oklahoma Metropolis truly managed to seize rebounds at a good larger clip (31 p.c) when Gobert was on the floor.
NBA stat guru John Schuhmann famous that the Jazz went simply 19-21 when surrendering 11 or more second-chance points this season, a stark distinction from their 29-13 mark when permitting 10 such factors or fewer. In that very same vein, the Thunder went 18-9 when grabbing 15 offensive boards or more, significantly higher than the 30-25 report that they had when producing fewer than that.
So, for a way nice Utah’s protection is, if the Jazz can’t end defensive possessions by gathering rebounds, they could possibly be in for a irritating sequence.
Will Rubio and the opposite Jazz ballhandlers make their mark?
Among the many greatest developments within the months since these groups final performed: Rubio has regarded an increasing number of snug in his new environment after a tough start in Utah.
He shot a profession greatest on the season from the floor as a whole but additionally from Three-point vary, the place he took extra pictures than he ever has earlier than. Rubio continues to be choosing his spots — he drives into the paint then dribbles out of it with out capturing, turning the ball over or getting fouled greater than any place to begin guard, in response to Second Spectrum information run by STATS SportVu. However his scoring is essential to Utah’s success at this level. The Jazz gained simply 29 p.c of the video games (5-12) during which Rubio scored 8 points or fewer, however they gained 65 p.c of their video games during which he had 9 or extra factors. (They went Zero-Three against OKC when he scored eight or fewer; within the recreation they gained in opposition to the Thunder, Rubio scored 16.)
Hyper-efficient forward Joe Ingles, who additionally has a tendency to get into the paint with out capturing however has been extra aggressive currently, may also be fascinating to observe. Ought to ace defender Paul George cowl him — as was usually the case in the course of the groups’ earlier matchups — the artful left-hander might discover himself blanketed at occasions.
Nonetheless, discovering methods to attain will doubtless be key for Ingles. The 2 video games during which Ingles shot poorly against the Thunder were blowout losses, whereas his extra typical stat strains produced far nearer outcomes within the different two video games. At a naked minimal, Ingles handling the ball often and creating seems to be for others will probably be paramount. Rubio will expend appreciable power staying in entrance of Westbrook, and Mitchell — the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring common since Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04 — may have time to regulate to this new stage of defensive depth.
Actually, all of us may want time to regulate to the depth this sequence might convey. If we’re fortunate, we’ll have a full seven video games of this matchup to get us prepared for the following spherical of the playoffs.
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