SC7: Why Utah Will Have a Shot vs. OKC, plus Rudy Blocks, ROY Talks & More

April 15th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

The Jazz are about to come face-to-face with the Thunder (game still)

Eighty-two down.

Some indeterminate number to go.

The NBA’s second season is underway, and the Utah Jazz are set to challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference 4-5 matchup. But before that can happen we need one more Salt City Seven column to relive the final week of the regular season. The SC7 is our modular way of capturing all of the salient themes from a particular 168-hour period in the Utah Jazz universe. This will be the final one until the fall as this is a tradition we leave with the regular season, but obviously you’ll see a ton of playoff coverage here at Salt City Hoops.

For this final 2017-18 issue of the Seven, we’ll wrap games 80 through 82, but we’ll also spend a chunk of time looking at what’s ahead: four to seven Jazz-Thunder battles.

 

A quick(ish) exploration of a prominent theme from the week or the current state of Utah Jazz basketball.

The Thunder undoubtedly view themselves as favorites against the Jazz — even title contenders — and it’s not hard to understand why. Their players boast 22 combined All-Star appearances, which is exactly 22 more than the current Jazz roster. They have 15 combined all-league selections, three NBA scoring crowns and a two-time Most Valuable Player.

Credentials don’t win basketball games, though.

Sure, Russel Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are household names. The Jazz roster might not wield the same accolade count or name recognition, but this series is going to be a good one.

The Jazz and Thunder finished the season with identical records, and Utah’s net rating — a better predictor of future success than raw win-loss record — is actually better than OKC’s1. In other words, not much separates these teams in macro quality.

The 4th/5th matchup is usually the spot on the playoff bracket where teams are most evenly paired, and where road teams have the best chance. Teams that open on the road are 10-80 in all other first round series since the NBA adopted a best-of-seven format, but they win exactly half the time (15-15) in the 4/5 series. The Jazz have advanced as the road team in that series four times in the last 11 seasons, including last year as they toppled the Clippers in seven games and hastened the end of the Chris Paul era in L.A.

So Utah has been in this position, and come out all right. But more than that, Oklahoma City has specific flaws that a team can pick at in a seven-game chess match. There are some things the Jazz will try to take the edge off the mercurial OKC attack.

For starters, OKC is very dependent on Westbrook’s ability to get a head of steam. They have a thinner playbook than most teams, because so much of their offense is predicated on getting Russ downhill via the pick-and-roll. The reason they can get away with that is because the reigning MVP is stupid good at getting where he wants to go with the basketball, but the flip side is that the Jazz can plan for it. And they can do so with their own All-NBA talent as the defensive fulcrum: the defensively dominant Rudy Gobert.

Gobert was only fully healthy for one of Utah’s four matchups with OKC this season. In that game, the Jazz focused on walling off the paint, having Gobert in place to cut off drives while the guard followed Westbrook over screens. This resulted in Westbrook pull-ups, a shot Utah can live with.

This can also force the ball out of Westbrook’s hands. Utah won that night by deciding that they weren’t going to let Russ beat them going downhill, and the result was a 26-attempt night by Melo and a 94 ORtg for OKC. 

When Gobert was out, they occasionally tried more trappy and switchy stuff against Westbrook, but mostly stuck to the same “contain” style of defense. The execution just wasn’t quite as clean, even though Gobert’s replacement, Derrick Favors, is also a capable defender who always adheres to schemes. (Side note: the Jazz had more undisciplined defenders back in the rotation in December, too.) Here, Ricky Rubio here. anticipates a trailing screen towards the middle of the floor, so he gets in position to deny the angle for the screen (ice). Steven Adams sees this, so he instead sets the pick in the other direction. Utah tends to scheme differently for outside pick-and-rolls (vs. middle), and now Rubio’s out of position because he didn’t adjust to the angle of the screen. Favors tries to contest, but doesn’t want to lunge at Westbrook and leave the paint unprotected. You even see him express some dissatisfaction at the end of the play.

The other thing that clip demonstrates is this uncomfortable truth: you can force Westbrook or George into jumpers, but sometimes they’re going to make them. Still, that’s the preferred outcome for Utah. If they lose this series because OKC’s stars hit a bunch of long twos over them, then they’ll tip their hats in respect as they fire up the fishing boat. But Utah, with Quin Snyder’s schemes, should be able to make sure that Westbrook can’t have the paint whenever he wants it. 

On the other end, the Thunder defense will switch and help liberally. That aggressive style helped them to an elite start defensively, but they’ve fallen off significantly since the injury to Andre Roberson, who was a legit DPOY candidate before hurting his knee. They’ve gone a pretty mediocre 19-14 since his latest injury, and in particular, the three-point defense was shaky at times in the final two months of the season.

“I’m really, really concerned about that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told our mothership (ESPN) after a four-game skid in February.”You want to protect the deep paint, and you don’t want to give up layups, but when the ball gets kicked back out, we have got to have more urgency to run people off the line.”

A higher percentage of OKC opponent threes are wide open2 than any other team. That’s more than 16 completely uncontested threes per game that the Thunder give away. If Utah’s roll-men and drivers keep their eyes up, then perimeter shooters will get looks like this:

The series may well come down to whether Utah’s shooters are knocking down those open looks.

The Thunder have other defensive studs. Adams is a beast, and will anchor a lot of OKC’s own pick-and-roll coverage. And George will play a key role alternating between hounding Jazz leading scorer Donovan Mitchell or denying Joe Ingles open threes. But they’ll miss Roberson, whose absence leaves them a little light on plus defenders. Corey Brewer, the player they acquired to slide into a rough approximation of Roberson’s role, is questionable after spraining his own knee on Wednesday.

Melo has slowed considerably and is (appropriately) used more as a complementary threat these days. The OKC bench is thin, too, especially with Brewer limping and Spanish sharpshooter Alex Abrines in concussion protocol. If the Jazz can scheme for Westbrook and force George to work for his 20 every night, they should be in okay shape.

In theory, you still don’t want to be in a close game with two superstars3 to manufacture shots and draw whistles. But as long as Utah limits Westbrook’s access to the paint and converts open threes, they’ll have a chance against the Thunder. 

 

Keeping track of Utah’s playoff chances

They’re here. No graphs, no probabilities, no spreadsheets. The playoffs are here.

Here. We. Go.

Jazz keys to the series:

  • Pick-and-roll defense: Don’t allow RW to get downhill too often.
  • Make OKC play against a set defense: Limit turnovers and get back after misses & makes.
  • Defensive rebounding: Keep Adams off the glass.
  • Execute the offense: Don’t hesitate to shoot when open.

Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.

Instead of looking at a single play, let’s look at a couple of things we’ll likely see from both the Thunder and the Jazz over the next couple of weeks.

As mentioned above, the Thunder have a pretty simple playbook, especially late in games when they go almost straight pick-and-roll for Russ. But occasionally they weave in a wrinkle here or there, and this is one of their favorites.

They have Melo set a backpick for George before he sets the ball screen on Westbrook’s man. If his man jumps out to show on that first screen for George, then there’s nobody to put a body in front of Westbrook on the second screen and he can get where he wants with the ball. If the defender does honor that first pick, though, then PG gets a step on his defender heading into this loop play where he gets the ball back and can either take an open shoot or attack.

The Jazz like layering multiple screening actions, too, only a lot of their stuff is based on misdirection where a screener then comes back to the ball. Whenever you see Mitchell or Ingles set a pick on a late set play, you can bet that they’re going to pop out for a pass. Here, Mitchell sets a down screen for Jae Crowder, and when his man pauses to decide how to handle that action, Mitchell rips past the Favors screen and gets open.

The Jazz run a bunch of creative stuff, and they make it tough for a defense to figure out who’s really screening for whom on a given play. OKC’s playbook is more straightforward, but that’s because they know that it’s very hard to stop a Russ (or PG-13) screen-roll play, even when you know it’s coming.

 

Words from a Jazz player or coach about a relevant or timely topic.

When Mitchell was asked whether he was immediately on board when his shoe brand, adidas, approached him about wearing a hoodie displaying the definition of the word “rookie,” he dropped this gem. 

“Not particularly, but you know, yesterday happened, so I was like, ‘Cool.””

– Mitchell, via the ever-hustling Ben Dowsett4

“Yesterday” is a reference to comments made by fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons. Simmons was asked who he thought should win the award, and he said he should. There’s nothing wrong with that; these guys are supposed to be confident, to want to be the best. But then he was asked what other rookies have caught his attention this season, and his response there was a little more problematic.

“None.”

In the midst of a historic ROY race highlighted by two guys having historically big debut seasons (as well as several other awesome rookies), there was no need to dismiss the competition like that. After Karl Malone won his 1997 MVP award, he literally thanked Michael Jordan “for letting me borrow it for a year.” This is just kind of disrespectful, and Mitchell decided to fire back with a hoodie poking fun at the fact that Simmons was on an NBA roster — though injured — last season.

Mitchell says the hoodie stunt was just for kicks. “I’m blessed to be in this spot, to even be in this consideration,” the rookie said. “Why not have fun with it as well?”

Look, Mitchell probably won’t win ROY. It’s fine if he doesn’t. There’s no rule stating that only one of these guys can grow into a superstar, and it has to be the guy with the ROY trophy. But this stuff is fun. Guys taking veiled (and not so veiled) shots just stokes what is bound to be a great rivalry between the two for years. 

“It’s great to be in the conversation like that, but I’m cool with where we’re at as a team.”

 

Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.

20.5

While we’re talking about Mitchell, it’s worth noting that no rookie since 2003-04 (Melo) has led a playoff team in scoring. In Mitchell’s lifetime, every rookie to average 20+ in at least 41 games has won ROY, unless he was defeated by another rookie who also averaged 20+. The last guy to average 20 and lose to a non-20 scorer was Glenn Robinson (21.9), who finished behind Grant Hill (19.9) and Jason Kidd (11.7) in 1994-95.

30

We’re all about looking ahead to the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be a true recap of the week if we didn’t talk about Utah’s poor showing in Wednesday’s head-to-head battle for the Northwest Division crown. Utah simply didn’t play well enough on either end to win, but the big key was too many empty possessions from their guards: Rubio (5-for-12, 4 TOs) and Mitchell (6-for-23, 2 TOs) combined for 30 empty possessions between the two of them. The Jazz simply put the ball in Portland’s hands too often, with 14 total Jazz turnovers led to 19 points for their hosts. 

Honestly, it was probably good for the Jazz, and Rubio and Mitchell specifically, to get that type of painful reminder. Neither have been in the playoffs before, and after a couple weeks of playing teams who were resting, tanking or just plain not ready, it may serve them well to have experienced that level of intensity and pressure in the last regular season game.

Doling out credit for Jazz wins, one imaginary Spalding at a time.

Let’s wrap up the year from a Game Ball perspective, with two final wins to recognize.

Jazz 112, Lakers 97: Mitchell

This was close for me. Maybe closer than it needed to be, given that Don scored a relatively efficient 28 to go with nine boards and eight assists. It’s just that Ingles was also so good, with 22-4-10. Joe had the two-handed dunk over a defender, Mitchell had the around-the-back dish. It was… close. Ultimately, I just don’t think you can look past 28-9-8. Royce O’Neale had his best offensive night in a while, and the bigs were key in Utah’s playoff-clinching win.

Jazz 119, Timberwolves 79: Favors

In a 40-point win, there are always going to be a number of ways you can go. I went with Fav. The big guy set the tone early with effort and defense. Just in his first stint, he dished for a Gobert layup, then grabbed a pair of rebounds, then dunked twice in a 20-second span. You could also go with Mitchell (another 22) or Jerebko (14 off the bench), but in a blowout of this magnitude, nobody plays huge minutes or piles up immense stats, so you kind of have to say, OK who helped make it a blowout? Fav had as much to do with that as anybody.

 

Because, at the end of the day, this should be fun.

Somehow, we got all the way through the regular season without a Gobert block list update.

After the Stifle Tower’s two chunks of missed time, his team started a historic tear. So there was never a great time to catch up with the list of people the All-NBA center has turned away on shot attempts.

Turns out, now is a good time, because just this month, Rudy crossed the 300 threshold. Minnesota wing Marcus Georges-Hunt was technically the 300th customer at Gobert’s House of Suffering, and since then a pair of Warriors joined the list: Kevin Durant and Kevon Looney.

Click to enlarge

Note that this counts credited blocks from the regular season. I clarify that because interested parties have reached out in the past to grill me on players I said Rudy hadn’t gotten. I’m using official scorers’ data, so if Rudy got some /guy in the preseason or after a whistle, it won’t show up here. If the scorer’s table didn’t count it, then it didn’t count. 

But even so, there aren’t a lot of All-Stars Gobert hasn’t blocked. He hasn’t gotten Klay Thompson in the regular season, although he did block him in last year’s playoffs5. He still needs to add Draymond Green and Kevin Love to his list, and the only new All-Star he hasn’t been credited with blocking is Victor Oladipo.

Still, 302 should make for a pretty lit group therapy session.

Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive | Salt City Hoops

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *