Road-weary Jazz Overwhelmed by Thunder from Opening Tip

December 20th, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

The Oklahoma City Thunder swarmed over the Thabo Sefolosha (22) and the Utah Jazz 107 – 79. (AP Photo/Sue Agrocki)

Story of the Game

Tonight the Jazz faced a team with more talent, better health, less fatigue, and burgeoning chemistry on their home court. The only way to win in such a situation is to play well enough early on to build confidence and enthusiasm to feed on for the rest of the night. Instead, just over six minutes into the game Utah trailed 17 to two.

Game over. The 107 to 79 spanking was clear from the beginning.

Not only did the Jazz fail to ever make the game interesting, they never gave the appearance of aspiring to do so. A lot of that had to do with Oklahoma City, who played a fantastic overall game. The Thunder closed out on Jazz three point shooters with abandon, then collapsed three and four men into the paint on drives, only to sell out once again on passes out to apparently open shooters. In their sixth straight game on the road, Utah simply lacked the energy, physical or mental, to compete with that defensive intensity.

Meanwhile, the Thunder offense was a millstone grinding Utah’s defense to dust. It was their consistency from the field that was most impressive: 10 of 19 shooting in the first quarter, 11 of 20 in the second, and 10 of 19 in the third. When the fourth quarter opened, the Thunder held a 27 point lead1. Quin Snyder went through the motions with several starters before emptying his bench early in the quarter.

Going into December it was easy to anticipate that things might get bad. Well Utah has lost seven of their last eight and has San Antonio up next tomorrow with no rest. Things are officially bad.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: None

One could easily argue the five most impactful players this game all wore Oklahoma City blue.

Secondary Star: Rodney Hood

Hood scored 17 points on 11 shots against a physical, aggressive defense, a good sign for a player who has traditionally struggled against that type of resistance. He made three of six threes and four of five free throws, numbers the team would take every game. Unfortunately, Hood contributed even less outside the scoring column than usual, failing to generate a single rebound or assist and turning the ball over four times.

Secret Star: Thabo Sefolosha

Against his former team, Sefolosha scored 12 points and added three rebounds, an assist, a steal, and two blocks while finishing a cosmetic plus-six on the night. To his credit, 21 of his 25 minutes came in the first three quarters where Utah so struggled. That he ended the night with a positive plus-minus shows his ability to stabilize the team.

Stats of the Game

28 – Thunder points on 18 Jazz turnovers.

50 – Points in the paint by Oklahoma City.

37 – The margin by which the Thunder outscored the Jazz in the two categories above.

40.5 – Utah’s effective field goal percentage, a truly anemic mark.

23 percent – Jazz three point shooting this game. They’ve now shot under 30 percent two games in a row.

0 – The number of seconds Utah led in this game.

Sundries

  • Russell Westbrook (24 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and four steals)  had a perfect-shooting first quarter, including going five for five in the midrange. Those are exactly the shots the Jazz want him taking. When he makes them all, you’d better reconcile yourself to a loss because that’s what will happen.
  • Donovan Mitchell missed his first NBA game with a big right toe contusion. Hopefully this was more a precaution than anything else. Mitchell has carried a heavy load so far this season and the infamous rookie wall isn’t a myth. The team needs to make sure their blossoming star’s body doesn’t break down.
  • In Ricky Rubio’s 25 minutes tonight the Jazz had an offensive rating of 65.2. His last three games that rating has been 91. Those are games without Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors on the court together, the factor so often blamed for the stagnant offense of Utah’s starters. To the contrary, it’s in situations with four or even five players stretched out to the three point line when Jonus Jerebko played center in Favors’s absence. For the season Rubio’s offensive rating is 100.1. Mitchell’s is 106.5, Hood’s 104.2, Raul Neto’s 107.4, and Alec Burks’s 118.8. Rubio had one assist tonight and hasn’t had more than four since Gobert exited with the latest injury. Combined with the games Gobert missed previously this season, this makes a compelling sample. Rubio doesn’t cramp the starting lineup’s offense. He stalls Utah’s offense whenever he’s on the court regardless of lineup.
  • Joe Johnson missed another two threes tonight. He is now two of 26 on the season. That’s less than eight percent. Placing him in the starting lineup hasn’t improved the offense at all yet.
  • Carmelo Anthony is the key if Oklahoma City is to live up to their pre-season billing as a genuine superteam that can threaten the Western powers. He’s the key because he has two teammates that a plain better than he is in Westbrook and Paul George2. If he defers to them and is willing to slide into the background when needed, exerting energy in areas other than scoring, the Thunder can be really good. Anthony shot the ball only six times in their comeback win against the Nuggets. Tonight he scored 18 on 12 shots, grabbed seven rebounds, and actually played solid defense. If he defers to Westbrook and George and gets shots off their ability to create, the Thunder can be scary.
  • Recently teams have committed to closing out Jazz corner threes with utter abandon. The Thunder did so routinely tonight, forcing players to drive along the baseline. They are combining packing the paint with that strategy, as well as looking to pick off the skip pass. The Jazz offense is being figured out by defenses with the athleticism, length, and discipline to stop those corner threes and recover into the paint. Increasingly, the area that’s opening up is the three at the top of the key. Tonight the Jazz took eight corner threes (making two) as opposed to 15 at the top of the key (making four). How Utah reacts to this defensive strategy going forward will be important.

Tomorrow may be a home game but it certainly doesn’t feel like one, the tail end of a back to back against the Spurs. It’s another game in which Utah will be an underdog. They won one of those in Boston, but if they can’t get a few more in this month, the team’s playoff chances diminish greatly.

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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2 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Wish the Jazz coaching staff would have Rubio on the second group with Hood. Starting Johnson and Hope was really a poor decision. Very Corbin like. Jerbko should now work the 4 with Than the 3. Make Burks run the point so he has to pass he ball.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I like Johnson with Udoh myself, and Jerebko with Favors. As for what to do with Rubio, I think it’s a really tough question. If he could consistently finish either at the rim or on pull up threes, even at a merely respectable rate, it would make things so much easier. But difficulty finishing from both areas is a killer.

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