Utah Jazz vs Oklahoma City Thunder Playoff Series Preview: Lineups, preview & prediction
After overachieving in the regular season, the Utah Jazz face a difficult first-round challenge as they face Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Many pegged the Jazz (48-34) for a rebuilding season after star player Gordon Hayward left for the Boston Celtics via free agency in the summer. However, Donovan Mitchell, originally selected by the Denver Nuggets with the 13th overall pick and then acquired by the Jazz for Trey Lyles and the No. 24 overall selection, unexpectedly filled the scoring void left by Hayward and became Utah’s go-to player offensively.
Mitchell became a full-time starter by early November and averaged 20.5 points, the highest mark by a rookie since Blake Griffin scored 22.5 per game for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2010/11. Mitchell shot 34.0 percent from 3-point range and also averaged 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
He played well enough to at least foster debate for NBA Rookie of the Year consideration against 76ers point guard Ben Simmons, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick who is technically a rookie since he did not play last season due to a foot injury.
Mitchell was not the only new backcourt starter for the Jazz as Ricky Rubio, brought over from Minnesota in exchange for a 2018 first-round pick last summer, averaged a career-best 13.1 points as his perimeter shooting became less of a liability. Rubio shot a career-high 35.2 percent from deep and also had 5.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game as he shared playmaking duties with Mitchell.
Oklahoma City (48-34), who claimed home-court advantage for this series by virtue of winning three of four from Utah, also had a makeover as they looked to create their version of a “Big 3” anchored around All-Star guard Russell Westbrook.
In separate deals with the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, they acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, respectively, which reduced some of the offensive burden on Westbrook.
Not that Westbrook needed that much of a break as he became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in consecutive seasons, capped with a career-high 20-rebound performance in Wednesday night’s season-closing win over Memphis.
Westbrook needed 16 rebounds to ensure his triple-double average and grabbed the milestone board in the third quarter as he also had six points and 19 assists.
He again led the league with 25 triple-doubles and has amassed 67 of his 104 career triple-doubles in the last two seasons. Westbrook averaged 25.4 points, 10.3 assists, and 10.1 rebounds, and his 44.9 percent shooting was his best since connecting on 45.7 percent of his shots in 2011/12 when he was flanked by James Harden and Kevin Durant.
George and Anthony struggled to acclimate to Westbrook’s style of play as both arrived in Oklahoma City as players who usually had the ball in their hands to create their shots. George averaged 21.9 points per game while shooting 40.1 percent from 3-point range, and Anthony, who played more in the low post after spending six-plus seasons in the mid-post with the Knicks, averaged a career-low 16.2 points while shooting 40.4 percent.
Anthony, though, became the 21st player in league history to reach 25,000 career points en route to his first postseason appearance since helping the Knicks reach the conference semifinals in 2013.