The Thunder, Rolled
The first round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz has been a little one sided with the Jazz winning three of the first four games amidst an intensifying of on-court frustrations that has resulted in an ejection and numerous technical fouls. The Thunder have been outplayed badly and they are hanging on for dear life as they head into a do or die Game 5 in Oklahoma. Winning would give them a chance to go back to Utah for Game 6 and a loss would get them an early start on all of their off-court dilemmas that will determine the next few years of the franchise.
Personally, I have enjoyed this series because it is a contrast of styles. The Thunder are a top heavy team that relies on the brilliance of Russell Westbrook and Paul George with a pinch of Carmelo Anthony to win games. On the other side, the Jazz are a group that relies on the sum of their parts with a transcendent defensive big man and an unbelievable rookie. Heading into this series, I believed that the Jazz would win in 6 games because of their offensive and defensive identities, something the Thunder do not have.
Offensively, the Thunder have not been good and defensively, they have not fared much better. Of all 16 playoff teams, the Thunder are 14th in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating. They have not been able to score with the Jazz, which is an odd sentence to type. Part of that is due to the defensive brilliance of the Jazz, who have maintained their defensive dominance from the regular season. The Jazz are 3rd in defensive rating for these playoffs. Rudy Gobert has taken away the paint for the Thunder and the Jazz have also cleaned the glass against a team that relied a great deal on winning the rebounding battle during the regular season.
The Thunder’s offensive rebounding percentage is at 18.7%, down from their league leading 27.7% during the regular season. Conversely, the Jazz raised their percentage from 21.5% during the regular season to over 25% so far against the Thunder. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors have feasted on the Thunder bigs. Looking at the Jazz rebounding numbers, Gobert is grabbing 4.5 offensive rebounds per game with Favors getting another 3.3 per game. While it is easy to point to Gobert and Favors as the reason for the rebounding dominance, the Jazz guards have done their part in helping to limit the Thunder to one shot per possession. Both Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell are over 7 rebounds per game with Mitchell at 8.5 and Rubio at 7.8 rebounds per game.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan's line-up choices have also left much to be desired in my view. His insistence on sticking with Carmelo Anthony to try and handle Derrick Favors is baffling to me. The argument can be made that Carmelo can provide some scoring, but he is shooting just 37% from the field on almost 15 attempts per game. He is attempting almost 7 three pointers per game and is hitting just over 23%. It might be time to give Jerami Grant a little more run with the starting unit. For the series, the Thunder have just three line-ups that have a net positive rating and all three involve Jerami Grant. While Grant does not have the scoring potential of Carmelo Anthony, his rim protection and ability to rebound seem to be a more valuable commodity in this series.
Carmelo Anthony is not the only Thunder player to struggle, reigning MVP Russell Westbrook is having a rough series. The numbers show that he is shooting 36% on over 19 attempts per game, scoring 21.3 points per game, grabbing 11.8 rebounds per game, dishing out 8.3 assists per game, and turning the ball over 5.3 times per game. To say that he is struggling is an understatement. While it is easy to focus on those totals, you have to also look at how he is performing on the court. While plus-minus is not always a great stat, it is interesting to note that he has not had one game with a plus score. Even in their win, Westbrook was -1 for the game. Conversely, Paul George aka Playoff P has been great for the Thunder. He is their leading scorer at 27 points per game and has been great from outside during the series shooting over 42% from three. George has also taken on the challenge of trying to slow down Donovan Mitchell for long stretches, but it has been too much for him.
Whether the Thunder win tonight or lose, they are not likely to win this series. They would be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs two years in a row when Russell Westbrook was their guy. While the argument last year was that he did not have any help, what can the argument be this year? He has help and he has offensive weapons that are proven. Somehow, the Thunder have been terrible offensively with him on the court in this series. Whatever you may think of Westbrook, the case can now be made that your ceiling with Westbrook as your best player may be a 1st round exit. While I am not a Westbrook fan by any stretch, I do respect him as a basketball player and he is quite good. I have to say that I fully believe that people jump the gun when they put him into the top 10 players in the league and this series shows it. Enjoy the game.