The Utah Jazz were 1-3 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2017-18 regular season. Utah hasn’t beaten OKC since October 21, the third game of the season, but that doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. The other 3 games of the series took place over a span of 18 days during the Jazz’s gauntlet December schedule. In the final game of the series, Utah fell 103-89 on December 23 to hit 15-19 on the season, meaning that the Thunder haven’t seen this squad since their mid-January turnaround.
Here are three big reasons that the Jazz-Thunder playoff series tipping off Sunday will look nothing like those early season games:
Since these two teams last met, the Thunder have lost Andre Roberson for the season to injury. The Jazz have lost Thabo Sefolosha for the season to injury and traded away Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson. Added up over the span of the four regular season games, the season series between these teams featured 306 minutes of guys who have no chance of playing a single minute in this playoff series.
Even that just barely scratches the surface of how different these rotations will be in the next two weeks from what they were in December, especially for the Jazz. Rudy Gobert missed 2 of the 4 games, a 14-point loss and a 28-point loss. Dante Exum, averaging nearly 17 minutes per game since his return from injury, missed all 4 games. Alec Burks, who has now completely fallen out of the rotation, averaged 19.5 minutes per game in the season series. The series was over long before Utah added Jae Crowder at the deadline, who has averaged 26.7 minutes per game for the Jazz.
Also, all 4 games took place before the real emergence of Royce O’Neale. Averaging 20 minutes per game since the season series wrapped, O’Neale averaged just over 9 minutes per game against OKC, including playing 4 minutes in game 4 of the series and under 1 minute in game 1. In game 3 O’Neale played 15 minutes, but he first entered the game with 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Jazz down 80-48.
The bottom line is this Jazz team essentially resembles the one that took the court in the regular season against OKC only in uniform. The biggest difference in this series, though, lies in the subtraction of one Thunder player and the addition of one Jazz player.
Andre Roberson’s Absence
When Andre Roberson went down with a knee injury in Detroit on January 27, that fundamentally changed the Thunder’s team. Roberson has established himself as one of the elite wing defenders in the NBA and his impact on OKC’s defense is incredible. With Roberson on the court this season, OKC had a defensive rating of 99.2, which would be the best rating in the NBA by a lot if a team did that all season. With Roberson off the court, OKC’s defensive rating dipped to 110.7.
From a bigger picture standpoint, OKC’s overall defensive rating also took a hit post-Roberson injury. Through that January 27 game, the Thunder defense was at a 106.5 rating. From Roberson’s exit from the lineup to the end of the season, that fell to 110.1.
Roberson suited up for all 4 games of the season series between these teams and was a big part of what was a stifling defense in the Thunder’s 3 wins. His absence will have an immense impact on this playoff series.
Rudy Gobert’s Presence
The Thunder haven’t had the pleasure of facing the Stifle Tower since December 5. He’s aware of this:
Rudy Gobert on playing Oklahoma City: “I missed them a little bit.” Jazz last played OKC on Dec. 23.— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 12, 2018
It goes without saying that Gobert is crucial to the success of this team. The Jazz are 37-19 when he plays and 11-15 when he’s out. When Rudy played against the Thunder this season, the Jazz won by 9 and lost by 6. Without him, Utah lost by 14 and lost by 28.
The clubhouse leader for Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy brought the Jazz defense against the Thunder to another level when he played. In the 2 games with him, Utah’s defensive ratings were 93.6 and 106.1 against OKC. In the 2 games without him, the Jazz posted defensive ratings of 119.2 and 121.6.
A huge part of adequately guarding the Thunder is the guards’ ability to stay in front of Russell Westbrook as much as humanly possible. If you can turn him into a jump shooter, that’s a small victory in the grand scheme. As fast as Russ is, though, no one can stay in front of him all game. Having Rudy at the rim is a huge deterrent for everyone in the league, but it’s especially big in this matchup.
Bonus: Ricky Rubio’s Emergence
I won’t get too deep into this, but suffice it to say Rubio has settled into Utah’s system a lot since late December. I’ll let his pre- and post-OKC season series numbers speak for themselves.
Basic stats before/after:
Advanced stats before/after:
(All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference)