Utah Jazz at the Thunder on Oct. 31
What the pros are saying:
What I’m saying:
- There are things you can usually take away from previous meetings, even when it wraps around the off-season. However, it appears that the Jazz are going through some growing pains, though it frankly surprises me. They added Al Jefferson to their low post to play along side Paul Millsap. Jefferson replaced Carlos Boozer, who now finds himself in Chicago. To me, Jefferson is a huge upgrade offensively. I think over the course of the season, he is going to learn how to play extremely well with Deron Williams, one of the top 3 PG’s in the league. However, there will be an adjustment period because off the screens that the Jazz like to run, Boozer was often a step back mid-range scorer, while Jefferson prefers his back to the basket. This combination should pay dividends over the course of 82 games, but for now the team is struggling to find itself.
- The defensive side of the ball seems to be where the Jazz are struggling most, and that again appears to be lack of coordination. The team has talked about not being sharp on its rotations. Knowledge of this type of information always bodes well, but again it is going to try the Thunder’s resolve to stay committed in their half-court set. When a rotation fails, the gut instinct is to shoot as soon as there is space. A team, and specifically a PG, committed to exploiting rotations must be patient and force the issue by making the extra pass. This often leads to layups instead of open 15 footers.
- Given the Jazz interior struggles, it will be imperative on Krstic and Ebaka to have impact games and avoid foul trouble. So far the team as a whole has resisted early foul struggles, which has allowed their bigs to stay on the court and make sizable impacts. They will have their hands full with Millsap and Jefferson. Defensively, the Thunder will need to stay at home and avoid getting trapped out on high screens. Deron Williams is extremely adept at being patient with his passing.
- This game will be another outstanding opportunity for Westbrook to square off against one of the league’s best in Williams. Williams is a more traditional kind of point guard, who is very committed to the schemes Coach Sloan likes to run. He doesn’t have the explosiveness of a Rose or a Rondo, but he is fundamentally sound and doesn’t make many mistakes. Where he will have a distinct advantage is in the low block – Williams is adept at posting up smaller guards. We might see Westbrook take the posture of attacking Williams with his speed to try and force the issue and get Williams to pick up some fouls. Regardless, Westbrook seems to love measuring sticks like these, and this will be a key matchup.
- Will the Thunder get better guard play this game? Thus far, James Harden has had negligible impact, accumulating only 7 points and a single assist so far this season. If Deron Williams has his way with Westbrook on the block and Westbrook picks up some fouls, it will be imperative that Harden be ready to take the reins against the Jazz.
What to expect:
This one is easy. The Jazz will hit the Thunder with a heavy dose of pick and rolls. The game will hinge on whether the Thunder can deal with them, in part, or in whole. The Jazz will be reluctant to run on the Thunder, because while their bigs are skilled, they are not court-runners like Green and Ibaka. The Thunder will need to look to push those screens higher than the Jazz want, in order to force the play into a screen and kick rather than a screen and roll. It doesn’t look like the Jazz have the perimeter shooters that they have in the past to take advantage of this strategy.
Stylistically, the Thunder will want to run, and it will be incumbent on Westbrook to maintain discipline when the fast break numbers are not present. So far he has played well in the point position, tallying 11 assists against the Pistons. I expect him to come out strong, the way he did against Derrick Rose, because the young man likes a challenge. However, Rose is not yet a disciplined PG, and Williams will not make the same kinds of mistakes.
The Thunder are tempting fate by continuing to force so many outside shots, and I think that dealing with the Jazz’ inside presence on the boards will haunt them if they do the same this time around. They cannot continue to have 2-15 3 point shooting games and not expect that to average out over the course of the season. Right now, they are not a good 3 point shooting team. Coach Brooks needs to recognize that, and rein in the outside shooting because it really isn’t necessary. Offensively, the Thunder have tactical advantages with Durant and Green, and getting them in closer to the basket should be a priority.
With Durant, he faces an interesting matchup where he will likely be guarded by Kirilenko. Kirilenko has the length to challenge Durant’s shooting. Durant will need to change up his game a bit in order to get the open looks he is accustomed to seeing. Kevin needs to find offensive patience in this game if he is going to have a more efficient offensive game. Again, 9-24 shooting nights eventually hurt you, even if they haven’t hurt the Thunder yet.
Playing the Jazz is always a temperature-taking game for teams. The Jazz are deliberate, precise, and make you play the same way. The Thunder are more talented offensively and athletically, but this is the kind of game that can expose the sloppiness that the Thunder have covered up with wins so far. Fortunately, they’ll be back at home and the boisterous crowd should help with their energy.
Thunder by 6.