NBA Playoffs
The Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Utah Jazz in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. (Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports)

The Oklahoma City Thunder clinched home-court advantage in first round of the NBA playoffs despite having what many would consider an underwhelming regular season. The reward for their efforts: a matchup with the surging Utah Jazz. The Thunder faced the Jazz four times this season winning the series 3-1. The games all came within the first couple of months of the season before the turn of the new year. Neither the Jazz or the Thunder will be the same teams they once were going into Sunday’s game one.

NBA Playoffs: (4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs (5) Utah Jazz

Keys to a Thunder Series Win

One main difference for the Thunder will be the absence of defensive force Andre Roberson. Roberson’s defense kept the Thunder afloat in the early parts of the year as OKC struggled to find a consistent identity on offense. With Roberson on the court this season, the Thunder boasted a defensive rating of 96.4 while forcing over 18 turnovers a game. Roberson’s presence allowed the Thunder to switch pick and rolls with reckless abandon and gave the Thunder confidence playing within the passing lanes. The Thunder ranked second in deflections for much of the season. Without the 26-year-old Colorado product, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 107.6. Such a drastic drop-off hasn’t been a death sentence, but Oklahoma City will have to play with much more discipline on defense. A knee injury to Roberson replacement Corey Brewer could also hurt the Thunder defense in the postseason.

On offense, the Thunder should look to push the pace and play in transition whenever they can – the Thunder rank third in points on the break. Utah is bottom 10 in the league in that regard.

Even with the offensive firepower of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City struggles to find consistency in a halfcourt set. The Jazz are comfortable with using the bulk of the shot-clock in search of the best possible shot – over 48 percent of the Jazz’s shots come between 15-7 seconds on the shot clock.

If the Thunder can force the Jazz to play at an uncomfortable speed, the advantage will be theirs.

Keys to a Jazz Series Win

The Utah Jazz have a dynamic playmaker in Donovan Mitchell and a player who very well may be the Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert. The Jazz have a chance to upset the Thunder if they can focus on one key matchup. Limiting Steven Adams is not an easy task, but Gobert will have to do just that. On the glass, Adams is the first player in league history to average five offensive rebounds a game without averaging double digits in rebounds. On offense, his chemistry with Westbrook in the pick-and-roll is almost telekinetic and nearly impossible to stop completely for four games. However, if Gobert can match Adams’ physicality, there is a chance the Jazz can be successful in this series.

If the Thunder are smart, George will have the task of defending Joe Ingles. Ingles can play the role of offense-starter, and with a knack for quickly getting into a rhythm, the Thunder will need to keep him in check. Mitchell can score in myriad ways – off the dribble, in transition, coming off screens as a ball-handler, and is a capable stand-still three-point shooter. Westbrook and shooting guard Corey Brewer will most likely be tasked with keeping the phenom rookie in check.

But for Utah, everything begins and ends with how Gobert matches up with Adams. He must keep Adams off the boards, especially the offensive boards. The Jazz, in the regular season, gave up the third least offensive rebounds in the NBA. However, the Thunder led the league in second-chance points at 14.9 per game. For the Jazz to have a shot at keeping pace with the Thunder’s attack, they will need to focus in on keeping Adams away from the basket. Allowing Adams to patrol the paint on either side of the floor will be a fatal mistake on the Jazz’s part.

X-Factors

Both the Jazz and Thunder have played well coming into the postseason.

For OKC, Paul George looks poised to leave his shooting troubles in March and continue his streak of stellar play in the playoffs. The x-factors for Oklahoma City are two-fold. Head coach Billy Donovan has shown a propensity to manage a playoff series well. Donovan spends much of the regular season “test driving” lineups to see what sticks. When the postseason rolls around, Donovan seems to have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Can Anthony show up in clutch moments for the Thunder? For the 33-year-old Melo, this will be his first postseason since 2013. If he can be efficient on offense and provide steady scoring, Oklahoma’s ceiling is unmatched.

Utah will need offense from Ricky Rubio. Rubio has never played in the NBA Playoffs before, and it will be imperative for him to rise to the challenge. The Jazz will not be successful if they depend on Ingles and Mitchell to handle the bulk of the scoring. Rubio finding a groove on offense adds another element to the Jazz attack that the Thunder likely won’t expect. Having a secret weapon of sorts can do wonders in the playoffs.

Prediction

If the Thunder can stay to their principles on defense and speed the game up on offense, there is a chance this series can end on a Game 6 on the road. (Thunder 4-2)

NBA Playoff Schedule For Thunder-Jazz ( All times are EST.)

Game 1: Sunday, 4/15 at 6:30 pm on TNT in OKC
Game 2: Wednesday, 4/18 at 8 pm on NBA TV in OKC
Game 3: Saturday, 4/21 at 10 pm on ESPN in Utah
Game 4: Monday, 4/23 at 10:30 pm on TNT in Utah
(if necessary)
Game 5: Wednesday 4/25 TBD in OKC
Game 6: Friday 4/27 TBD in Utah
Game 7: Sunday 4/29 TBD in OKC

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