NW Division Foes: The Oklahoma City Thunder

October 3rd, 2018 | by Tyler Crandall

The Jazz and Thunder will continue to wage their growing rivalry, with four games in 2018-19. (game still)

Editor’s Note: Tyler Crandall, one of SCH’s new additions, is ramping up for the 2018-19 season by taking a look at Utah’s divisional opponents. Last season, all five Northwest Division teams won between 46 and 49 games, and four of the five made the playoffs. Tyler will preview what may be the league’s toughest division from top to bottom, including a look at how good they might be on the whole and a preview of the four-game Jazz season series. Today, Tyler starts by looking at the Thunder.

Oklahoma City Thunder, 48-34, 3-1 vs. Utah

With Paul George signing a long-term deal to stay in Oklahoma City1, Jazz-Thunder has the makings of a multi-year rivalry. That sentenced seemed unlikely a year ago when OKC had just traded for George and Carmelo Anthony and the Jazz had lost Gordon Hayward2.

Obviously we all remember that the Jazz ended up in a tie with OKC at 48-34 and fell to the No. 5 seed due to a tiebreaker after losing the regular season series 3-1.

Because the Jazz were so handily beat in a couple of those games, many people predicted an easy win for the star-studded Thunder heading into the first round of the playoffs. Fans clearly shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. It was a competitive series, but the Jazz ultimately won in 6 games — and it could have easily been 5. Going into the series, NBA Twitter featured takes like, “Steven Adams can easily outmatch Rudy Gobert physically.” Those opinions did not turn out to be based in reality.

The Jazz’s 1-3 loss in the season series really had a lot more to do with Jazz injuries in the early part of the season and scheduling (they played the Thunder three times in December, with more than one of those games on the second night of a back to back) than it did with the personnel and match-ups. Of course, Donovan Mitchell had not yet grown as comfortable as the alpha scorer when these two teams played their final season game on December 23, but had developed into that role heading into the playoffs.

That series featured a lot of emotion on and off the court, so it’s fair to expect that this rivalry will continue to feature some physical and competitive games.

Lineups and Match-ups

While the core OKC experience is mostly unchanged with Adams, George and 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook returning, this 2018-19 iteration of the team should be slightly, if not much, improved.

Letting Melo leave qualifies as addition by subtraction. Interestingly, Jazz radio voice David Locke stated on his podcast in the summer of 2017 that his prediction model had the Thunder pegged as the No. 3 seed in the West before Melo joined — and dropped them down to No. 6 after that acquisition.

Andre Roberson’s return from injury is also a huge boon for the OKC defense, as many pundits consider him the league’s premier wing defender. The Thunder had one of the league’s best defenses when Roberson was on the floor, and while they were still good after he went down, they were no longer top-five in that category. 

The Thunder added Nerlens Noel  via free agency and landed Dennis Schroder in a trade, both of whom are young and probably haven’t reached their full potential. It will be interesting to watch what kind of impact Schroder can have as the lead guard off the bench. He is primarily known for his scoring threat. Schroder’s last squad, the 24-58 Hawks, did manage to sweep Utah last season, helped by his torching of the Jazz for a career-high 41 points in one of the two contests. Scoring was a weak spot for the Thunder bench when PG and Russ were off the floor; Schroder could shore that up.

What to watch

These two teams will face each other in Oklahoma on December 10 and February 22, and Utah will host contests on December 22 and March 11. Keep an eye on a few items of particular interest during this season’s Jazz-Thunder series.

One thing to watch for is the brewing rivalry after such an intense playoff series. Things can and probably will get chippy.  So buckle up. As Craig Bolerjack would say on Jazz TV broadcasts, “If you’ve got ’em, use ‘em.”

It will also be interesting to watch how  Schroder lifts the offense and attacks the Jazz and whether he can carry that kind of load off the bench for a contender without being a defensive liability. Perhaps Billy Donovan will even play him for stretches alongside Russ, though I can only imagine how well  poorly that will go.

Also important will be how Mitchell fares when Roberson is lined up as his main defender.

Prediction: 2-2

Two of Utah’s games against OKC (both of the December games, one home and one away) fall on the second night of a back-to-back. In each case, OKC will come in with two days of rest, which certainly does not favor the Jazz. The third meeting comes as the first game back after the All-Star break for both teams, a toss-up from a rest standpoint, but with the Thunder at home3. This makes it much harder to have confidence in the Jazz winning the series outright, especially in light of just how good OKC will probably be this year with a healthy Roberson and no Melo. 

Tyler Crandall

Tyler joins Salt City Hoops for the 2018-19 season, having previously written at The J-Notes. Tyler grew up in Utah watching the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an active tweeter at @tjcranman.

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  1. Pingback: NW Division Foes: The Portland Trail Blazers | Salt City Hoops

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