The Oklahoma City Thunder received all the help they needed in the last week of the 2017-18 season. The team ended up in a three-way tie with the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans. The Thunder won the tiebreaker by virtue of superior head-to-head records against those teams.
Now, we look ahead to the playoffs. The Thunder have home-court advantage in the first round against the Jazz. Here are three things the Thunder must do in order to win their first round series:
Limit bad shots
There are two players on the Thunder roster who take a lot of bad shots. We all know who they are. They are two of the most talented players in the NBA. They are also two of the most frustrating players in the NBA. Of course I am talking about Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.
There are many reasons why the two future Hall of Famers must not take bad shots. First, the Thunder’s winning percentage declines significantly when Russell Westbrook shoots at least six three-pointers. Oklahoma City was 5-14 when Westbrook shot at least six threes this season. When he shot five or fewer threes, the Thunder went 43-20. Westbrook shot a paltry 29.8 percent from behind the arc this season, so it makes sense that the team’s winning percentage is significantly worse when he takes six or more threes.
Another reason why the Thunder must avoid taking bad shots is that the Jazz are a great defensive team. In fact, they are the best defensive team in the league in many important stat categories. They lead the league in fewest fast break points allowed, which means that the Thunder must take good shots in their half-court offense. Also, Utah finished second in defensive rating in the regular season. It will be a challenge for the Thunder to control the tempo and score in this series. They must move the ball well and make good decisions on offense.
Find ways to get Rudy Gobert out of the paint
Jazz center Rudy Gobert is viewed by many as the leading candidate for defensive player of the year. Gobert finished third in the NBA with 2.30 blocks per game in the regular season. Gobert stands at 7-foot-2 and has an 8-foot wingspan. His interior defense helped the Jazz to allow opponents to score just 41.8 points in the paint per game, which is second-best in the league.
The Thunder and head coach Billy Donovan need to find ways to get Gobert in pick-and-roll situations where he ends up being dragged out to the perimeter. If they can get Gobert out of the paint, they can run their offense smoothly, as the Jazz will be on their heels and out of their comfort zone. If the Thunder allow Gobert to stay in the paint, Westbrook will shoot a low percentage from the field and will miss many shots at the rim. The series will be won and lost in the paint.
Let Paul George defend Donovan Mitchell
Thunder forward Paul George has said that he will be the man tasked with defending Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. This will not be an easy task. Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring at 20.5 points per game and is one of two players who could win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award.
George will have to force the rookie into some tough shots and contain one of the brightest young stars in the NBA if the Thunder want to advance. The Jazz do not have anyone who can score the way Mitchell can, but have many players who can contribute on a nightly basis.
I think that Westbrook will take better shots, for the most part. There may be one game where he and Anthony take a bunch of contested shots at the end, but this one game will not cost the Thunder the series.
It will be difficult for the Thunder to keep Gobert out of the paint. Jazz coach Quin Snyder will make adjustments throughout the series and will have Gobert in position to make big plays on defense. The Thunder are going to have to make some threes, which they have done consistently in recent games. I think the Thunder’s role players will show up and contribute in their home games, which will put OKC in position to win the series.
Finally, George will force the inexperienced Mitchell into taking a lot of tough shots. Mitchell will put up solid numbers, but he will be inefficient. The Jazz will not score enough points to win the series.
I believe that the home team will win every game of the series. These teams are evenly-matched. If the Jazz had home-court advantage, I would have picked them to win the series. However, the Thunder have home-court advantage, and I think their playoff experience will shine through in big moments. I think the Thunder will win the series in seven games.
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