Utah Jazz vs Oklahoma City Thunder: Lineups, preview & prediction 4/15/18
Not a single game separated these two sides over 82 games in the regular season, so expect this to be a close one
This is potentially the most intriguing of all the first round playoff matchups. These two sides finished with identical 48-34 records, leading to them finishing fourth and fifth in the Western Conference standings.
OKC are one of the most dangerous teams in the west, and both the Warriors and the Rockets would be happy to see them knocked out early. They are very good defensively and a penchant for beating the best of the best, and their offensive talent can go off at any moment.
The Jazz, however, could also claim to be the scariest team in the west outside of Houston and Golden State. Since star center Rudy Gobert returned in mid-January, Utah have won 30 of 38 games, and have been almost impossible to score against. Presuming the Rockets take care of the Timberwolves, they don’t want to be meeting either of these sides in the second round.
Three keys to the game
Can Mitchell handle the heat? – For all the Jazz’s defensive dominance, they have still needed someone to carry the offense, and mostly that has been rookie Donovan Mitchell. The 21-year-old averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals in his debut regular season, and over his past ten games that has gone up to 23.3 points and 4.4 assists. The playoffs are a different game, though, and it will be interesting to see if he can handle the increased defensive pressure in his first post-season game.
Playoff Westbrook – Last year, this guy wasn’t so good. In his five playoff games, he averaged an absurd 37.5 points, but this was essentially because he took almost every shot imaginable. He shot just 38.8% from the floor and 26.5% from long range on a ridiculous 9.8 3-point attempts per game. He dished out 10.8 dimes per night, but this was accompanied by six turnovers. This season, he has a lot more offensive talent around him, and he will need to remain under control if the Thunder want to win this one.
George’s shooting – In the final game of the regular season, Paul George scored 40 points on 13-for-20 shooting including 8-for-14 from downtown. This was his first game since February 14 that he shot over 50% from the field. He has been in an extended slump, and the Thunder will be desperately hoping that his latest performance against the Grizzlies was a sign of things to come.
Matchup to watch
Donovan Mitchell vs Russell Westbrook – The rookie vs the reigning MVP. Westbrook is a flawed player, but he is also an extremely good one, and if he can play in a somewhat controlled manner he could lead the Thunder to victory in this game. He returned to his old ways a little towards the end of the season, shooting some low percentages and taking too many 3-pointers, and if he does this in this game it will play straight into the Jazz’s hands.
At the other end of the floor, Mitchell has a huge task trying to keep up his regular season form in his first ever playoff game. The rookie appears to have a very sound head on his shoulders, but facing a high-quality defense playing at a level he probably hasn’t yet dealt with will take some adjustment.
Oklahoma City Thunder predicted starting lineup
PG – Russell Westbrook | SG – Corey Brewer | SF – Paul George | PF – Carmelo Anthony | C – Steven Adams
Utah Jazz predicted starting lineup
PG – Ricky Rubio | SG – Donovan Mitchell | SF – Joe Ingles | PF – Derrick Favors | C – Rudy Gobert
The entire season series between these sides took place before Christmas, and in it, George showed what he can do at both ends of the floor. He averaged 21.8 points per game while shooting 49.2% from the floor and 44% from beyond the arc. Most impressive, however, were his 3.8 steals per game. There is no doubt he will bring his best at the defensive end of the floor, and his form against Utah combined with a return to his shooting best in game 82 of the regular season suggests he could be dangerous in this game.
The over/under points total for this game is set at 206.5, which is too high. Of the four games between the Jazz and the Thunder this season, the highest total is 194, and while Roberson was playing in these games, the fact that it is the first game of the playoffs means both games will bring their defensive best. Expect this to stay well under the 206.5 total.
This will be a close one. A lot will depend on whether Westbrook can contain himself and play to the strengths of his team, and with plenty of playoff experience around him expect him to do just that. George will have gained a huge amount of confidence from his last game, even if it was against the lowly Grizzlies, and he will score a game-high 30 points to lead his team to victory in this game. The Jazz will be tough to score against at the defensive end, but they won’t be able to generate enough offense to get over the line in this one. OKC will run out 99-94 winners in the first game of the series.
The game will be broadcast nationally on TNT. Tip-off is at 6:30pm ET.