Utah Defense Stymies Thunder Super Trio in 96-87 Win

October 21st, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

(AP Photo/Chris Nicoll)

Story of the Game

Death. By. Defense.

When Oklahoma City added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook, many assumed the Thunder had created an unstoppable juggernaut.

So much for that.

Utah’s platoons of long, active, and engaged defenders forced the Thunder’s all-world trio to take 56 shots to produce 54 points. Which bears repeating: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony took more shots than they scored points against Utah’s defense. They began to show frustration early and the emotion only intensified as the night continued, eventually resulting in three technical fouls against the Thunder, who spent most of the night trailing by double digits. The final score of 96 to 87 isn’t indicative of how significantly Utah outplayed Oklahoma City. With defense this stifling, it felt like the Jazz rode a twenty point lead most of the night.

It wasn’t simply an off shooting night for the trio either. For the majority of the game, particularly the first half, the Thunder took the shots Utah wanted them to take, long contested twos. Anthony and Russell combined for 17 shots from the midrange out to just inside the arc. While they made nine, those shots were never fueling a potent, efficient offense – especially with Utah’s intimidating interior defenders holding the Thunder’s big three to five of 12 shooting in the paint.

Vitally, Utah managed this without fouling, sending the Thunder to the free throw line only 19 times, with Westbrook, George, and Anthony combining for only seven attempts.

Offensively, the Jazz were once again balanced with five scorers in double figures led by Joe Ingles 19 and a bench that outscored their Thunder counterparts 30 to 21. But the story, as expected in most Jazz wins, was defense.

Utah is 2 – 1 after playing three assumed playoff teams in the west, and doing so without having their presumed leading scorer for even a single full game. This looks like a playoff team even in a stacked Western Conference.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Joe Ingles

Ingles scorched the Thunder by hitting five of his nine three point attempts, adding in a complete complimentary game with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and a block. But even 56 percent from behind the arc doesn’t fully communicate how devastating Ingles’ marksmanship was on the night. Several times when the Thunder made a push and seemed to be gaining confidence, Ingles would calmly sidestep a defender’s close out and drill a three. He even drew a Steven Adam’s technical when the huge New Zealander gave the Aussie a slight elbow jogging up the court. It was a gritty game the Jazz controlled, and Ingles clearly loved every minute of it.

Secondary Stars: Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio

Each player scored 16 points while Gobert added 13 rebounds and Rubio another all around game with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. But most importantly, Gobert more than held his own against the ultra-physical Adams (9 points and 5 rebounds), a tough match up for the thinner Frenchman, and Rubio’s pesky defense never let Russell Westbrook get into full locomotive mode to the rim. With Rubio holding down the point and Gobert anchoring the paint, it will be really hard for opponents to get Utah’s defense out of position.

Secret Star: Thabo Sefalosha

Sefalosha’s box scores never pop off the page, but with Rodney Hood largely unavailable to the Jazz the Swiss veteran has stealthily – and capably – been soaking up loads of pressure minutes. Again tonight he simply filled his role admirably, contributing 4 points, 4 rebounds, an assist, and 3 steals. While the Thunders’ ability to rack up some meaningless late points hurt Sefalosha’s plus-minus in the fourth quarter cosmetically, it’s still telling that he is second on the team1 in fourth quarter minutes so far this season with 26. In those minutes, Utah is plus-11.

Stats of the Game

11/19/26 – The field goal attempts of Russel Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony respectively.

13 – Combined turnovers by Westbrook and George

Plus-3 – The best plus-minus of any Thunder player, Alex Abrines, in 28 minutes of play, which indicates Utah’s consistent dominance.

20 – Minutes Alec Burks played, producing 8 points (on 5 shots), 3 rebounds, and an assist, steal, and block, a good bounce back after Minnesota.

49 percent – Utah’s shooting percentage from the field against the Thunder, a match for their season average, good for second in the league.

Plus-11 – Ekpe Udoh’s plus-minus in 15 minutes of play. This is becoming a notable pattern.

Sundries

  • The Thunder will certainly figure out a better way to utilize their talent – they have too much not to do so. But their big three has a noteworthy vulnerability that was on display today: two of their three superstars naturally gravitate to tough midrange shots. In this way, they’re like the analytical opposite of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Carmelo Anthony is comfortable living at the elbow, and Russell Westbrook is never hesitant to pull up in the midrange if the path to the basket is shut down. Even good shooting of those shots won’t propel an elite offense. How Billy Donovan breaks these two players out of these comfort areas will go a long way to determining their success this season.
  • Derrick Favors (13 points on only 6 shots) took another three, which this time looked comfortable and smooth, though it missed. He hit two of three jumpers beyond fifteen feet yet within the three point line. His shooting has held up this far, allowing him to play significant minutes with another big, which makes Utah’s defense killer. He also got to the free throw line six times, making five, which is part of his game he really needs to improve to up his efficiency as he takes more long shots.
  • This was a chippy game, something that’s become something of a pattern when these two teams meet. With Westbrook and Adams, few teams can match the Thunder’s physicality. Utah did and more tonight. They were tougher and had more tough players.
  • Donovan Mitchell can’t buy a jumper. After 1 of 7 shooting (and missing all 3 attempts from long range), he’s now 5 of 25 (25 percent) from the field and 0 of 7 from three on the season. That said, the young man has guts and determination.¬† His lone made shot – a pretty drive and spin to the cup against stiff on-ball pressure – stemmed the last real Thunder charge early in the fourth quarter, and he led the team with 6 assists. He’s learning his shooting windows are vastly different in the NBA than they were in college, and getting down timing, his place in the offense, and when to pull the trigger has him thinking a lot about his shot. It’ll improve, but it may take a while.
  • Rubio’s defensive rebounding (6 tonight) is a major advantage because it helps the Jazz get up the floor and into early offense. He’s going to have a career year this season even if he doesn’t up his shooting percentage. If that ticks up, he might be the Jazz player earning Most Improved Player honors. Sorry Rodney.

Tuesday sees the Jazz at the Clippers for the first time since Utah ended the Lob City era in last year’s playoffs. Don’t miss!

 

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.

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