December Dates with OKC Will Be Valuable Down the Stretch

December 5th, 2017 | by Steve Godfrey

J Pat Carter via ESPN.com

In the month of December, the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder will square off three times, starting tonight in Oklahoma at 6 p.m. MST. The Thunder entered the season as overwhelming favorites to win the division, but with a quarter of the season behind them, they are projecting to finish closer to the Jazz than most experts thought. It’s not just division supremacy on the line this month, either. Since the Jazz and Thunder may finish in a similar record range, these three games give Utah an opportunity to jockey for playoff positioning with these Thunder, who have come down to earth after the high off-season expectations.

FiveThirtyEight Breakdown

Prior to the season, many analysts were looking at the Thunder as a potential top four seed in the loaded West. CBS Sports argued they could be the “next-best team in the NBA,” while the Washington Post predicted the Thunder would give the Warriors a run in the Western Conference Finals next spring. Instead, the Thunder sit at 10-12, a game and a half below the 13-11 Jazz in the Western Conference pecking order.

Recently, the Thunder have won two in a row, but they are 5-5 in their last ten. The Jazz bring a six-game win streak to Oklahoma on Tuesday, yet sport a similar 6-4 record in their last ten. Are the Thunder underperforming? Are the Jazz overperforming?

FiveThirtyEight is a website that uses stats and analytics to predict and gauge economics, politics, and sports. Among other things, the site offers an NBA forecast that is based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season. They run those simulations based off of each team’s point differential and opponent quality, while also mixing in variables such as fatigue or travel distance.

According to their model, the Thunder are on pace to finish with a 47-35 record, far below the Vegas books’ preseason over-under of 53 wins. The Jazz, on the other hand, are currently predicted1 to finish 46-36 according to FiveThirtyEight, above the Vegas line of 41 wins.

Record-wise, the Thunder find themselves in ninth place, on the outside looking in for the Western Conference playoff picture. However, if the forecast proves true, they’d wind up in a tight battle with Minnesota for homecourt in the first round, with the Jazz nipping at their heels in sixth. If the Jazz want to switch fortunes, or climb the ladder, or gain an edge, or improve their odds, or anything like that — it starts with these three December games.

Learning Curve

The Jazz can take advantage of this December three game set by catching the Thunder while on their learning curve. They have three superstars, guys who can score or get a bucket when the going gets rough, and they defend well. Put those things together and we don’t need a metric to tell us they will be good. The key words there are will be — not currently.

It could really be advantageous for the Jazz to get all four match-ups out of the way while the Thunder are figuring out roles, rotations, identity, and ball distribution. When playing, and paying, a Big Three, it takes awhile for everyone to get acclimated and accustomed to each other. Consider the Thunder SuperStuds:

Carmelo Anthony came into the season knowing he’d need to sacrifice a bit, but in the first 19 games, it didn’t look like he would do so. He was scoring 19.7 a game, but he was also taking 16.7 shots. When the Jazz and Thunder squared off for the first time in October,  Anthony shot 26 times (making 12), which helped keep the ball away from reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. With Westbrook limited to just six points, the Jazz took the win 96-87.

In the last two games, wins over Minnesota and San Antonio, Carmelo played far differently, passing up open jump shots, moving the ball, and scoring in single digits.

While Melo may never want to move to the bench, he is starting to recognize his role and its importance as the third option. Recently, he told ESPN that the team was “still trying to figure it out, still trying to see how we want to play.” Anthony continued: “So we’re still trying different things out there. For me personally, it’s just about doing something different, seeing where the team really needs me on a night-to-night basis. And just be willing to do that and being willing to sacrifice, not every night having to score 20 or 30 points, and I’m good with that, it’s a good feeling as long as we’re winning. I think these past couple games that we’ve been winning, we’ve been moving the ball well and putting a complete game together, and as a result, have won two in a row.”

The Jazz, however, should take advantage of this time until he fully commits to it.

Paul George knew he’d need to adjust, as well, but the drop-off with his production isn’t near as drastic as Carmelo’s. George is still putting up big stats across all categories: 20.6 ppg, 3.4 apg, and 5.1 rpg – but is shooting the worst percentage of his career (aside from his six-game sample size in 2014/15). George is currently shooting 42 percent on ten two-point attempts per night, while putting up some clunkers in recent games including a 1-for-12 outing in 40 minutes versus the Mavericks last week or his 2-of-17 performance against the Spurs on Sunday.

The problem confounds because the Thunder just aren’t sure where to play George (or Carmelo). Are they better with Russell or with the bench? How do they stagger the minutes? The Norman Transcript, a local Oklahoman newspaper, points out that the Thunder have outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook and George are the only two members of the big three playing. Most of that production comes on the defensive end, where the Thunder allow 94.9 points per 100 possessions, a figure so elite it would lead the NBA if it belonged to a team. In fact, George is averaging 2.5 steals a game, the highest average of his career and the highest across the league thus far this season.

Russell Westbrook’s stats have taken a hit compared to last year, but it’s his scoring and percentages that have dipped the most. Last year he led the league with 31.6 points per game, but this year has conceded nearly ten points, to sit at 22 points a night. But it goes deeper than that:

All three guys are figuring it out, which gives the a chance Jazz to leapfrog past the Thunder while they do so. When the Thunder are clicking, or when they just turn on the switch, they can be as good as previously advertised, but consistency is still a problem as they wrinkle out the warts. The Jazz have a rare opportunity to finish the season series against their division rival before Christmas, perhaps owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Steve Godfrey

Steve studied journalism and English, and now teaches high school in Northern Utah. He started his own website and writes about being a Tortured Jazz fan at: http://www.thetorturedfan.com/. He joined the Salt City Hoops team at the start of the 2017-18 season to connect with more Jazz fans and to continue to apply his passion for writing and for basketball.

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