George’s 8 Threes Sink Jazz 108 – 116

April 15th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

Derrick Favors (15) and the Utah Jazz couldn’t slow down Paul George, whose franchise playoff record eight made threes powered the Oklahoma City Thunder to a Game 1 victory in the opening weekend of the playoffs. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Story of the Game

In the Utah Jazz’s charge into and up the playoff standings to end the regular season, they were the league’s most dominant defense by a wide margin. In their first playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, that defense was abused to the tune of 116 points, resulting in an eight-point loss.

The night started on a much brighter note for the visiting team, as eleven straight points by the Jazz helped them build a 12-point lead early in the first quarter. Their offense was humming and it looked like the Thunder just might get blown off their home floor.

Then Paul George hit two threes, establishing the theme of the night. From the point where the Jazz led 16 to four, the Thunder outscored the Jazz 112 to 92, shooting 52-percent from the field and 54-percent from three. Every time it seemed the Thunder offense might finally succumb to Utah’s vaunted defense, George injected it with new life by hitting another three, ending the night with an astounding eight made threes on eleven attempts, a Thunder playoff record. A number were tough shots after pulling tight around screens or pull ups off complex dribble moves. That kind of shooting, on such difficult shots, is what enabled Stephen Curry to change the NBA landscape. 

George isn’t the shooter Curry is, but the 40-percent long range shooter upped that to 73-percent tonight and it was just too much to overcome.

It isn’t that the Jazz didn’t try, perhaps unexpectedly driven by their youngest contributors. Donovan Mitchell, who was easily the Jazz’s best player with team highs in points (27) and rebounds (10), and Dante Exum combined to score 22 second-half points. 

But the Jazz simply had no answer for the Thunder from long range, who made eight of 14 threes (57 percent) in the second half, led by George’s uncanny four of five.

Russell Westbrook (29 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists) may be the defending league MVP, but tonight it was George (36 points) who returned to past MVP-caliber form. The combination was too much for Utah, overpowering the Jazz’s strength on the defensive side of the ball.  

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Donovan Mitchell (27 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 3 threes)

In the rookie’s playoff debut, he went a long way to canceling out last season’s MVP Russell Westbrook. Mitchell scored only two fewer points on three fewer shots (22) and even managed to gobble up double-figure rebounds for the first time in his young career. He also made three of seven threes, a percentage Utah would take every night from Mitchell. After having his left foot stepped on Mitchell noticeably favored it, but it didn’t stop his offensive production and he even argued his way back on the floor after heading to the locker room for examination. The spotlight of the post-season didn’t phase the rookie one iota. If Mitchell is able to approximate anything near Westbrook’s ridiculous statistical output, like he did today, it gives the Jazz a real chance to win this series. 

Secondary Star: Dante Exum (10 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound)

While Exum turned the ball over three times in his 18 minutes, including on back-to-back possessions as he succumbed to the post-season pressure and played too fast, he also showed the ability to get all the way to the rim and finish better than any other Jazz player. After scoring six points and dishing an assist in the fourth quarter, he earned Quin Snyder’s trust and played more than eight minutes of the defining quarter. His 10 points on six shots provide a hopeful sign that he may be able to give Utah an offensive boost it could really use.

Secret Star: Alec Burks (10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 threes, 2 min) 

Alec Burks became almost an afterthought for the back half of the regular season, and he didn’t enter the game today until there were two minutes left in what looked like a blowout. Then he scored 10 points in those two minutes, making both of his three point attempts in that span, and made the Thunder sweat a little. Rubio and Ingles both struggled against Oklahoma City’s defensive scheme. It will be interesting to see if Snyder decides to roll the dice on Burks in spots where the Jazz desperately need someone able to create his own offense. 

Stats of the Game

122.8 – Utah’s defensive rating following their 16 to four lead. Only three times during the regular season did a team score that efficiently on the Jazz throughout an entire game (Houston twice and Milwaukee) and Utah lost all three.

19 – Second chance points by the Thunder, nine more than the Jazz. Utah lost by eight.

32 – OKC paint points, 12 below their season average.

87-percent – Free throw percentage on the Thunder’s 23 freebies, all shot by their starters.

5 – Thunder bench players with positive plus-minuses, illustrating Utah’s inability to gain an advantage when Thunder stars sat.  

Sundries

  • What appeared to be a fascinating series going in now looks only more so. Utah has a host of things to consider, both positive and negative, going into Game 2. 
  • [Positive] OKC managed a 60.6 true shooting percentage, which they shot tonight, in only 20-percent of their games this season, and won every single one. When this team shoots that well they’ve essentially been unbeatable. It’s highly unlikely they can manage three or four such offensive outings against Utah’s defense.
  • [Negative] This game was played largely as the Thunder wished. During the regular season they led the league in second chance points and were fourth in fast break points. Today they scored 19 second chance points, five more than their league-leading season average, while their 22 fast break points also bettered their average of 15 on the season. That’s greater than the margin of victory right there in those two areas. Also, the Thunder don’t want to have to play against Utah’s set defense, and this game had 102 possessions when the Jazz averaged under 98 in the regular season. If this series has these dynamics game in and game out, Utah will lose.
  • [Positive] Ricky Rubio shot 28-percent from the field (and missed all three of his three-point attempts). In the 18 games he shot that poorly this season, the Jazz were seven and 11. In the 59 games he shot better than that, Utah was 37 and 22, which is a 63-percent winning percentage. Rubio wasn’t defended especially well tonight, he just missed open shots. He should have three better shooting games for each game like this. 
  • [Negative] I said before the series started that Joe Ingles would essentially determine whether the Jazz won or lost. Billy Donovan did exactly what I feared he would do and put George, an all-league defender, on Ingles rather than Mitchell. While Ingles managed an efficient 13 points on nine shots (only two with George actively defending him), he distributed only a single assist. Only eight times all season did he fail to distribute at least two assists, and the Jazz lost all eight of those games. There’s legitimate question as to whether Ingles is athletic enough to create with the ball in his hands against George’s defense, and the Utah’s offense has become heavily dependent upon Ingles distribution. It can easily be argued he’s been Utah’s best distributor for the second half of the season.
  • [Negative] Steven Adams erased Gobert’s impact tonight, holding the Frenchman to seven rebounds, only three on the defensive glass. If the Jazz can’t finish defensive possessions with rebounds against this team, it’s hard to see how they win the series.
  • [Positive] Gobert played much of this game in foul trouble, which means he will likely be able to be more aggressive in the future. Plus, it’s stitched into every fiber of Gobert’s being to rise to a challenge. When opposing centers outplay him he takes it personally. I think that’s exactly what he feels now and will focus on going into Game 2.
  • [Positive] The Thunder were the 24th ranked three point shooting team in the league during the regular season with a 35-percent mark from deep. If they shot that way this game they’d have made 10 threes rather than 14. This game has an entirely different complexion then.
  • [Negative] Carmelo Anthony had three steals, two blocks, seven defensive rebounds, and took only 13 shots. That is exactly what Utah didn’t want to see. When Anthony took 20 or more shots in the regular season, OKC was three and seven. The Jazz want the Thunder to play as if they have a big three, because they don’t. They have two all-world talents and one former elite scorer who simply isn’t any more. If Anthony defers to George and Westbrook while contributing defensively in anything close to the way he did this game, OKC is far more dangerous.   

The Jazz won’t panic after this loss nor should they. The adage that a playoff series hasn’t started until a road team wins a game isn’t completely true, but there is some truth there as most series’s natures are determined in the second game rather than the first. Plus, Snyder is well-renowned intellect and preparation ability, and he has until Wednesday to counter the things he witnessed tonight. If the Jazz manage to win Game 2, they’ll have exactly what they hoped to get in Oklahoma City, having stolen back home court. 

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

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