Utah Jazz: Examining a first-round date with the Thunder

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 09: Russell Westbrook
MIAMI, FL - APRIL 09: Russell Westbrook /

The Western Conference playoff seeding is far from decided and changes on a nightly basis. The Utah Jazz currently hold the fourth seed in the West and could play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.

Recently, I wrote about a first-round matchup between the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs. At the time, this was the most likely outcome. In the wild, wild Western Conference, though, things change fast. As of today, that is quite a bit less likely. Less than two percent of a chance, in fact.

Playing the Oklahoma City Thunder has also been a possibility. Is this a cause for concern? Lately there has been a trend of Jazz fans stating that the OKC Thunder create a bad matchup for the Utah Jazz. If that’s true, that’s unfortunate because they are the most likely playoff opponent for the Jazz for multiple seeding scenarios.

For example, if the Jazz win out and beat both the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers to take the third seed, they play OKC as the sixth seed.

If the Jazz lose one, they likely end up as the fifth seed, playing OKC as the fourth. If you want to see more scenarios, David Locke did an excellent breakdown.

The matchup

The Jazz lost the season series with OKC 1-3. Obviously, this is a bad indication right off the bat. Keep in mind, however, that the Jazz lost the season series to the LA Clippers 1-3 just a season ago before beating them in seven games last playoffs.

There’s a lot of important context in this season series record.

The Utah Jazz had a brutal month of December and half of January. In December, they went 5-10, which was actually a GOOD result given the difficulty of the schedule.

Game 1 in Utah, Oct 21, 2017 (W): The Utah Jazz have a (sans Dante Exum) healthy roster, including Rudy Gobert. They win at home 96-87 with a pretty impressive defensive performance and a defensive rating of 93.6.

Game 2 at OKC, Dec 5, 2017 (L): The hellish December has begun. Rudy returned from injury in the previous game, a thumping of the Washington Wizards. Rudy wasn’t quite 100 percent yet (he actually didn’t look quite himself in any of the games prior to being injured again about a week later) and the Jazz team had not clicked yet.

The Jazz actually led by 15 in the 4th quarter until Russell Westbrook took over in a massive effort to fuel the victory. The Jazz were playing on the second game of a back-to-back and halfway through the fourth quarter their energy seemed depleted and their offense died, leaving them with a 14-point quarter. That said, the Jazz dominated for most of the game until the comeback happened.

Game 3 at OKC, Dec 20, 2017 (L): Game 2 vs. OKC kicked off a stretch in this order.

  • @OKC Thunder (back end of back-to-back)
  • Houston Rockets
  • @Milwaukee Bucks
  • @Chicago Bulls
  • @Boston Celtics
  • @Cleveland Cavaliers
  • @Houston Rockets
  • @OKC Thunder (tail-end of six game road trip, front night of back-to-back)

Not only did the Jazz play OKC twice in this brutal span, they did so in a back-to-back scenario and at the tail end of a long trip. Rudy was absent for this game after getting injured against the Boston Celtics. Without Rudy and Donovan Mitchell playing (and starting anti-defense Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood), the Jazz limped through the game and were absolutely destroyed.

Game 4 in Utah, Dec 23, 2017 (L): To make matters worse, this game came only a few nights after the last game against OKC. It was the third game in four nights with only a back-to-back game against the Spurs in between.

Again, Rudy was missing in action. The Jazz put up more of a fight, but the defense of Andre Roberson slowed Donovan throughout the game.

So it’s not all bad, right?

This is exactly what I’m trying to say. The Jazz were really given no chance of success against their division rival this year. While the Thunder do have star power in Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, this is not the same team we saw in December and the Jazz are not the same team either.

Since mid-January the Jazz have won 28 of their last 33 games and Dante Exum’s return has only spurred the Jazz to a five-game win streak.

Next: Golden State won’t rest healthy players against Utah Jazz

With Andre Roberson in the lineup and healthy, OKC was also one of the top-five defensive teams in the NBA. He’s arguably the best wing defender in the NBA and losing him has hurt the Thunder, who are now only the ninth best team defensively.

Sure, this will be a tough matchup. But could the Jazz win? Yes, and it may not even be defying the odds.