Staff Scrimmage: Jazz Playoff MVP, Westbrook Woes & This Year’s Excitement vs. Last Year’s

April 25th, 2018 | by Salt City Hoops

DM-V-P! Five SCH writers check in on Mitchel and the Jazz (Gene Sweeney Jr. via espn.com)

The Jazz are in control, but not out of the woods.

Utah took a 3-1 lead in their first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder with their 18-point win on Monday, setting up a chance to close out the series in Bricktown. Five SCH writers weighed in on what they expect in Wednesday’s Game 5, as well as other key themes in the Jazz-Thunder series.

1. What can the Jazz expect from OKC in Game 5?

Andrew John: This series is probably over, but that doesn’t mean the Thunder couldn’t push it to a Game 6. The Jazz have been so much better than the Thunder this series, yet the Jazz are still incredibly inexperienced in the postseason. I think it’s unrealistic to expect a team full of players with little collective experience in close-out games to go into Oklahoma City and again dominate a team that has as much talent as the Thunder. Still, if the Jazz get a double-digit lead in the second half, OKC could quickly implode. 

Thatcher Olson: The Jazz shouldn’t expect OKC to give up. Though the Jazz are up 3-1, the Thunder are still a very good team. They will come out with a desire to win, and the Jazz need to have the energy to match that. If they don’t come out engaged, the Thunder crowd could come to life and momentum will build. The real question: is Russell Westbrook being engaged and in another gear a good or bad thing?

Steve Godfrey: The Thunder are capable of big runs, with scoring in bunches, so they will give Wednesday a good shot to get back in the series. The problem is that whenever the Jazz respond with a run of their own, or whenever the Thunder face a dash of adversity, they fold and can’t recover. I expect the Thunder to come out guns blazing, but the Jazz will chip away at it in the second half to put the OK3 era in question. Bring on Houston.

Jonathan Turnbow: The Jazz are a well-prepared team with an incredible amount of focus. They will expect to be in a physical, playoff-style game against a team that has three Hall of Fame caliber players on its roster. The reality is that OKC was completely embarrassed in Utah. They hate playing in Utah. Guess what the reward will be for a valiant effort at home? Another trip to Salt Lake City to play in an arena where they’ve struggled. “Playoff P” (Paul George) may already be thinking about LA’s beaches, and Carmelo Anthony is just grateful that he’ll continue making way too much money. I’m fairly confident all Westbrook can think about is pulling Ricky Rubio’s hair in Game 5.

Dan Clayton: War. The Thunder are going to be fighting for their lives, and this particular Jazz team just hasn’t faced a team yet playing with that kind of win-or-go-fishing urgency. That said, the Jazz’s principles — on both ends — will allow them to compete if they can settle down like they did over the course of Game 4.  

2. Will Westbrook get going in time for it to matter in this series?

Andrew: I think it’s too late. Westbrook has not had a good series (shooting 37 percent and turning the ball over 5.3 times per game) and it’s because he can’t finish over Rudy Gobert at the rim. That’s allowing Rubio to apply more pressure on the perimeter. He made the series about his personal matchup with Rubio, which is exactly what the Jazz wanted. Even if Westbrook has a big Game 5, this series is a mess that can’t be cleaned up in one or two games.

Thatcher: Westbrook is dynamic and energetic, and plays with a drive and ferocity that few players in NBA history have been able to match. The problem is that he only has one way to play. He tried to double down on that effort in Game 4 and it backfired on him. To impact this series he has to play consistent defense, set up his teammates and play within a system. Westbrook and the Thunder haven’t proven to be able to do that, and it may be too late for him to have a positive impact.

Steve: No. In the Thunder’s lone win, Russ had 29 but they were still minus-1 when he was on the court. In the three games since, they are -5, -25 and -14 with him because he’s settling for midrange shots, is afraid of the paint, and often doesn’t make the right read against the defense Quin Snyder & co. are throwing at him. (From my personal blog: the Jazz are doing a great job of slowing Westbrook.) After placing 11th in regular season PER, he’s barely above average in the postseason. The Jazz’s Russ Rules are working.

Jonathan: I predict a Westbrook triple-double in Game 5. He is going to come out aggressive and stop deferring. The tricky of this question is the “to matter in this series” part. No, he would have had to get going in Games 2, 3 and 4 for it to really matter. He is a great competitor who can easily lose focus on the game plan (assuming Thunder coach Billy Donovan has been giving them game plans). Russell could score 50 with a triple-double in Game 5 and I would answer no to this question.

Dan: It depends on what we mean by “get going.” Russ could very well go off at any given moment, and he’s capable of turning up the intensity like a switch. Here’s what I don’t expect, though: I don’t think he’ll suddenly “solve” the Jazz’s defensive schemes, mostly because it sounds as though he doesn’t quite understand what he’s solving for. The Jazz should probably be more afraid that the Thunder will suddenly realize they get much better offense when possessions go through George and they use Russ as a screener and/or slasher. Or that they, Idunno, run a play. If the remaining 1-3 games come down to Westbrook vs. the Jazz’s schemes, I don’t see the trajectory of the series shifting dramatically.

3. Who has been the Jazz’s playoff MVP so far?

Andrew: Donovan Mitchell. Gobert has been the defensive anchor he’s been all season, and Rubio has nearly averaged a triple-double. Perhaps more importantly, he’s frustrated Westbrook defensively. But Mitchell, a rookie, has carried the scoring load for the Jazz, averaging 27.5 points over four games on 45-35-88 shooting splits. That’s absurd. When he’s on the court, the Jazz are an elite defensive team: 98.1 points per 100 defensive possessions. They’re not so elite (119.5) when he’s on the bench. It’s on the way to becoming one of the best single-player postseason performances in team history.

Thatcher: The best thing about the Jazz is that they don’t have one MVP. When Westbrook tries to shut down Ricky Rubio, it hardly mattered because of Utah’s balance. Gobert, Rubio, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and even Jae Crowder have each had their moments to shine and have had a big impact on the series. You could name four or five different MVPs for the Jazz, but Donovan has been the breakout star. His ability to close games and take over in the most important moments has been his greatest strength. No matter how he struggled, he is able to adjust and perform down the stretch.

Steve: I’ll stick to Snyder’s iconic quote: “The strength of our team is the team.” I know I’m dodging the question, but Donovan is the leading scorer and getting clutch baskets, Rudy is anchoring the perfect defense, Quin is orchestrating the ideal game plans, Derrick is beasting down low, the home crowd has been nuts, Ricky is winning the point guard battle, and Joe is being Joe. How can I pick one? The strength of the team is the team.

Jonathan: Quin Snyder? The exposure for Mitchell has led to exposure for Rudy and Ricky. Ingles has has walked around Playoff P. I believe this squad when they say, “The strength of our team is the team,” and I believe that is a credit to Snyder. Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player and Coach of the Year.

Dan: In the way we traditionally define what an MVP is, it’s Mitchell. But I think Gobert has had just as big an impact on the playoffs so far. This series has largely come down to the Jazz’s ability to deny Westbrook and the Thunder their bread-and-butter offensive stuff, and Gobert is the primary reason the usually explosive Russ can’t get anything going downhill. I don’t want to overthink it because 27.5 ppg for a 22-year-old playoff virgin is special, but don’t look past how dominant Rudy is playing right now. He influences every single defensive possession, and the threat of his elite roll finishing is also opening up quite a bit on offense, too.

4. What has been your favorite moment of Utah’s playoffs so far?

Andrew: Of all the great moments, Ingles trash talking George after draining shot after shot in Game 4 has to be near the top. The Jazz were good last year, winning the division and reaching the second round of the playoffs, but they never had this kind of swagger and confidence that often makes good teams great. You could see just how demoralizing it was for George and the Thunder, a team with a pair of All-Stars and the reigning MVP, to continually get buried time and again by a guy who looks like he works in Human Resources — and then have him stare them down and talk trash about it.

Thatcher: Ingles. The spotlight is finally shining on him, and it’s a glorious thing to see. He is showing people why he’s an elite shooter and great defender, but he’s also showing his desire to win — at any cost. His antics frustrate the Thunder, but they also make for great entertainment.

Steve: For most of the first have of Game 4, the Thunder held a lead and played with an edge and intensity that the Jazz weren’t matching. The game was physical and it seemed as if the Jazz were going to cave. Making it worse, Ingles was 0-for-4 from the 3-point line and the open looks just weren’t connecting. Down 49-47 with two minutes until halftime, Ingles went automatic, nailing three straight swishes from deep to give the home crowd a breath of optimism and confidence, and setting the tone for beautiful second half of Jazz basketball.

Jonathan: The Jazz proving that they are a better team this year than they were last year. The events that transpired this past summer made the Jazz a better ball club. My heart along with many other hears in Jazz Nation were quickly healed with the success of this true rookie phenom.

Dan: So hard to choose just one (and I wrote the damn question). All of the Jingles moments by colleagues mentioned were terrific, but Mitchell (and subsequently Mitchell and Rubio) basking in the roaring glow of an appreciative crowd was a pretty memorable moment. The other thing I love about this moment — and just about every single interview Mitchell has given in the past two weeks — is that he always finds ways to insert unsolicited kudos to his teammates. He is a unique, precocious star who is really bought into the Jazz’s culture.

5. In general terms, which is/was more exciting: this year’s Jazz playoff run, or last year’s?

Andrew: This year has been more exciting and I’m not sure it’s even close. A year ago, no matter what happened, no matter how far the Jazz went in the playoffs, there was the very real possibility the team would lose its lone All-Star in free agency. The future of the team was always hanging in the balance. This year, it appears the team is not only more prepared to make a deep run, but regardless of what happens, the immediate future of the team is secure. Utah has a pair of stars under 26 (Gobert and Mitchell), and Ingles is also locked up for three more years. The other guys don’t appear to be in a rush to move along, either, and there’s a feeling surrounding this team that has been missing for two decades.

Thatcher: This year is far more exciting. Last year was great to see the culmination of years of work from Gordon Hayward and other Jazz players, but there was a cloud hanging over the excitement as Hayward’s free agent decision loomed. This year was unexpected, the Jazz seem even more cohesive as a unit, and it’s only the start of something special. Rudy and Donovan are here to stay. 

Steve: Let me be clear: this year’s team and playoff run is more exciting. But I do want to give a nod of respect to last year’s group. The Jazz had a buzzer-beater game winner from Joe Jesus and eventually won the decisive Game 7 on the road. Sure, three starters and some depth pieces are gone, but last year’s group set the standard: go to the playoffs, be the underdog, prove ’em wrong, be tougher, be a team, and win a series. That’s what I expect this group is about to deliver.

Jonathan: I nearly broke my wife’s hand high-fiving her after the Joe Johnson buzzer-beater last April… but the Thunder were easier to hate from the get-go, and the play of the team combined with the homecourt extravaganza has been levels above last year. They’ll finish the Thunder in 5.

Dan: There are several things that make this year’s run more endearing and entertaining by a long shot. First is the camaraderie and closeness of the team. Last year’s Jazz were more businesslike, and hey, there’s merit in that, too. But it just feels like every member of this year’s core Jazz group legitimately loves every other guy. The social media banter was the first clue, but more convincing are the number of rawer “awww” moments that the cameras have caught. These guys would step in front of a train for each other. This year’s team is also just getting started in terms of defining an era, and it doesn’t hurt that there’s still a sense that they’re playing with house money — remember, they were never supposed to be here. They’re now 32-7 since January 24, and it somehow feels like they’re getting better before everybody’s eyes. This is a great time to follow and cover Jazz basketball.

Thanks to our panel for weighing in. Let us know in the comments how we did and how you’d answer!

 

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