Tonight the Utah Jazz continue their road trip by playing the Oklahoma City Thunder on the first night of a back-to-back that has them tipping off against the Houston Rockets on Saturday night. The Thunder were supposed to be the cream of the Western Conference this season, but a variety of injuries (we know a thing or two about that) derailed the start of their season. Now, with a mostly healthy team (only rookie Mitch McGary is out still) they have some work to do. The Thunder play in the Western Conference. And to win in the West, that is to say: to make the playoffs, you have to have about 50 wins under your belt to say you've 'earned it'.
For the Thunder winning 50 games, on paper, shouldn't be hard. After all they have won 59, 60, 47, 55, and 50 in their last five seasons. (For the record, the Thunder fans are lucky because their team has made the playoffs in 5 of their last 6 seasons. Seattle Supersonics fans had the team make the playoffs 22 / 41 times, but are 1 for 3 in the NBA Finals. Know what what a ring is, but haven't been as spoiled as OKC fans are knowing -- basically -- only success.)
Right now the Thunder are 17-19, having climbed up from their deep hole. The 10-7 team at home isn't invincible though, and the 10th seed in the west are only 5-5 in their last 10. What rate do they need to win 50 out of 82 games? They would need to win 0.609756098 games per game, starting from 0-0. They're below that. Behold:
OKC is talented enough with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, and new addition Dion Waiters (he shot 11 fg% in his last game!) to go on an 8+ win streak. So it's likely that they will make up some ground here or there as the season progresses. But I don't know if they can take losing to the "teams they should beat" anymore. There's a very small margin for error right now for OKC to meet their regular season goal: be a high seed in the West.
Utah just finished TROUNCING the Chicago Bulls, who no doubt expected the team to roll over and die. Utah wasn't making contenders worry about them after beating the Timberwolves, only to lose to the Pacers. Some may take notice as the Jazz go Full Apache and are taking big game scalps now. OKC can't afford to lose to this Jazz team, and Utah seems to be focused on beating the good teams this year.
Gordon Hayward is having an All-Star snub year, which used to be the glass ceiling for some of our players (until they moved to another team in a larger market in a different conference). Derrick Favors is collecting 20-10s like Carlos Boozer used to collect hamstring injuries. And Rudy Gobert, well, Rudy Gobert is just the King of the Monsters right now.
Defensive the Jazz are making the type of turn around the Thunder want to make in their winning%. It will be interesting to see how the still injured Jazz (no Alec Burks, no Rodney Hood, and possibly no Enes Kanter) will deal with the Thunder and their high profile guards. OKC has a number of three point shooters, and ALSO hit the glass very well on offense. The Jazz have the size to protect their glass. It's going to be a game won in the paint, no matter what Waiters or Westbrook have to say.
The Marquee Match-up: for now and forever, will be between KD and Hayward. KD is an MVP candidate every season for the rest of his career. Hayward is finally earning some of the respect his play deserves. It will be interesting to see how many FTAs the refs spot KD, but if Gordon is as good as he can be tonight, then OKC is in trouble. After all, he beat them by himself before.
Fearful Prediction: OKC gets all the calls. You know this is going to happen.
Fearless Prediction: Our bigs outplay their bigs, and make this game a lot harder than OKC expected.
GO JAZZ GO!