The Utah Jazz are once again finding themselves in the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. While last year felt like a long time coming, this year’s appearance feels like it came out of nowhere. Utah’s miraculous comeback after being 9 games back in January has made this playoff series feel like Utah is playing with house money. In order to get you prepared for the kick off of this divisional rivalry masked as a playoff series, we asked our SLC Dunk writing staff to give their thoughts on the upcoming series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Here’s what they had to say.
Describe this season with one word and why.
Mychal Lowman: Dumbfounded. I predicted at the beginning of the season that Utah would finish at 47-35. By mid-January, I thought that prediction would get me on Old Takes Exposed. I was firmly in the camp of #TankNote by January 22nd. Jazz were closer to the #1 pick than they were the 8th seed. Then they proved us all wrong. What an incredible comeback. To tune out all the noise, the fear of not being able to make up the ground, and just to ball out for 3 straight months? Incredible. Utah’s final schedule was just one never-ending gauntlet of elimination games. Here’s something remarkable. Had Utah lost just two more games over that stretch, making them 46-36, they would have missed the playoffs despite STILL having the greatest turnaround of all time. The margin of error was so small and here we are.
Diana Allen: Magical. There is no other way to describe the amazing run the Jazz had the second half of the season. If the Jazz would have had a few losses more they would not have made the playoffs. Everything worked out exactly how it was suppose to work out. The historic run from 19-28 to 48-34, Donovan Mitchell becoming the coolest player the Jazz have ever had, Rudy’s defense, Rubio’s turn around. Everything was magical.
Jason Walker: Unexpected. Almost nothing about this season, good or bad, could have been predicted during the summer. Not Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, the run since January, anything. We all expected a this season to be mediocre at best, but that is far from what ended up happening.
James Hansen: Success! When the season started, Jazz fans talked about getting the 8 seed as the best case scenario. We’re in the 5th seed!
Kaleb Searle: Satisfying. It’s like going through a bad breakup and almost a year later looking back and realizing it was for your own good and you’re in a better place now.
Sam Goodrich (jazzyman): Phenomenal. The Jazz have gone from a bottom seed in the West to a team that on many nights has looked like a legitimate contender. Rudy Gobert has really solidified himself as Defensive Player of the Year, Quin Snyder has proven to be among the top coaches in the league, and Donovan Mitchell has been Donovan Mitchell.
Spencer Campbell: Surprising. I did not pick the Jazz to make the playoffs or to have a winning record. Based on last year, I didn’t know if the Favors Gobert experiment would work. I am glad that I was wrong. Snyder showed again why he should be coach of the year and DL pulled of some great moves at the deadline which helped us on the final push.
Jordan Cummings: Improbable. Losing an all star to free agency, losing their top 2 scorers, integrating a new point guard into Quin Snyder’s complex offense, bringing new rookies up to speed, battling through injuries and a brutal schedule, scratching and clawing their way from 9 games under .500 to a 5 seed in the insanely competitive Western Conference... this Jazz team kept fighting against all odds. They were expected to be fighting for lottery positioning, and instead they were 1 game away from securing the 3rd seed. What this team has accomplished is damned impressive.
Andy Bailey: Patience. To go from 19-28 to 48-34 in the ever-brutal Western Conference is impossible. And yet, the Jazz did it. I can’t recall another example of in-season development this vivid.
Tavan Parker: Medicinal. That might just be the third year pharmacy student in me speaking, but this year brought the healing Jazz fans needed. Donovan Mitchell brings an excitement to this franchise that more than makes up for Gone Away-ward. This will be one of the most memorable seasons in Utah Jazz history with what this team accomplished despite all odds.
Kristine Jakins: Diana already said magical, which is accurate. So if I can’t repeat magical, I’ll say fun. It has been great to watch these guys on and off the court.
Why should Jazz fans feel optimistic about this series?
Mychal Lowman: The Atlanta Hawks aren’t in the Western Conference Playoffs. Kidding. Utah has been playing playoff style basketball since January. They have only had a couple of bad losses in that time. That Portland Trail Blazers game gave this playoff experience anemic team a taste of what the postseason will be like and put a chip on this team’s shoulder. They’ve been an amazing road team during this turnaround. Home court can be obtained in only 48 minutes, and Utah’s road warriors mentality can be a huge advantage here.
Diana Allen: Utah is a completely different team from the last time they played OKC. We have not played them since December 23rd. The 1-3 record against OKC means nothing now. Utah’s defense will overpower OKC’s offense. I have complete confidence in Quin Snyder coaching the Jazz to a series win.
Jason Walker: OKC is an inconsistent team with key players that are not known for playoff success (Paul George being a bit of an exception there). If the Jazz force them to be a jump-shooting team, it could get ugly really quick for the Thunder as they rank poorly in 3-point shooting.
James Hansen: OKC is a team that you can game plan for and find advantages. It’s the Westbrook show, even with Paul George, and Quin Snyder will find ways to exploit it. Missing Andre Roberson has also hurt them as well.
Kaleb Searle: Utah has the defensive firepower to withstand the storm. Russ might get past the guards but Gobert will still be there at the rim, and the Jazz have wing defenders to throw at Paul George. On the other end, OKC’s defense is questionable since Roberson went down.
Spencer Campbell: Everyone is healthy, and we have figured out how to play with with our roster at full strength. Our defense is great at defending the paint and unless OKC shoots 50% for the entire series I don’t see them winning the series. Quin Snyder is fantastic at making adjustments, and with time to prepare he will have a game plan ready fo OKC that will give us the advantage on both side of the floor.
Jordan Cummings: Health. Our team finally has it (other than Sefolosha), and OKC is dealing with an injury to Brewer, who was a surprisingly important piece for their team down the stretch. Mitchell experienced some growing pains vs the Blazers in game 82, and after studying game film he’ll come into the series ready to compete. Gobert is the defensive player of the year, Quin Snyder is a hell of a coach, and everyone on the team knows their role and plays within the system.
Andy Bailey: Utah’s defense will be prepared, and the Jazz have a lot of different guys they can throw at Russell Westbrook. I’m particularly excited to see Westbrook’s shift from giddy to infuriated when he’s defended by Joe Ingles. He’ll think he has a huge edge, but as Chris Paul found out in the playoffs last season, Ingles is not the defender you want when facing Utah.
Tavan Parker: Because the Utah Jazz are one of the best teams in the league. They have also won 15 of their last 17 road games, so home court advantage wasn’t a necessity for this team. As others have stated, this team is very different than the one that went 1-3 against the Thunder this season. Utah also went 1-3 against the Clippers last season and we all know how much that mattered.
Kristine Jakins: The Jazz have Rudy Gobert, the rightful DPOY. Their defense is incredible. They have shown that they have all the pieces needed to handle teams like OKC.
Why should Jazz fans feel pessimistic about this series?
Mychal Lowman: The Utah Jazz are relying on a rookie scorer. There’s a reason rookies struggle in the postseason. Coaches are able to zero in on them, scout them heavily, and shut them down before they have time to pivot. Donovan Mitchell has been unlike any other rookie, but this is a huge stage with a lot of eyes on him now. Can Donovan Mitchell overcome playoff scouting and schemes as a rookie? Few rookies have. If Donovan Mitchell can, the legend of Spida-man will just continue to grow.
Diana Allen: The Jazz will struggle with the refs this series. OKC has star power in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Jazz need to stay mentally strong to overcome the perceived disadvantage they will have regarding officiating.
Jason Walker: The Jazz have a problem with not being able to stop point guards and Westbrook has consistently been a problem for them. If Rudy gets in foul trouble, it becomes a chance for Westbrook to take over the game.
James Hansen: Steven Adams is a problem for Rudy Gobert. His size and strength cause Rudy problems that he doesn’t face with anyone else.
Kaleb Searle: Two words: Star power. At the end of the day, the name on the back of the jersey matters in the NBA, no matter how much we hate it. OKC’s got Westbrook, George and Anthony. The series could quickly devolve into a parade to the charity stripe and world of foul trouble for Utah’s best defenders.
Sam Goodrich: Oklahoma is not the best matchup for the Jazz. They have players like Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook and Paul George who can lock down our best players. We will see what Quin Snyder and the coaching staff comes up with, because our typical strategy of funneling everything to the middle doesn’t always work well against OKC.
Spencer Campbell: Westbrook, George, and Anthony can all go off for 30+ on any given night. At times this year the Jazz have given up moe points to players of lesser caliber than these three. I really like Steven Adam’s work ethic and hard-nose style of basketball and feel that he will cause problems for Rudy.
Jordan Cummings: Star power. OKC has a lot more of it than Utah, and that matters in the playoffs. OKC is more top-heavy than the Jazz. If Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams can get to their spots and impose their will against the Jazz, then it may not matter how bad their bench is this series.
Andy Bailey: Utah plays more connected and as a team on both ends of the floor, and there will be stretches when Rudy Gobert is the most impactful player on the floor. But on straight-up talent, OKC may have the series’ top two guys in Westbrook and Paul George.
Tavan Parker: OKC has the reigning MVP in Russell Westbrook, and while he likely won’t repeat thie year he has still been pretty incredible. Steven Adams also seems to be one of the only players in the league that can give Rudy troubles at times with his physical brand of basketball.
Kristine Jakins: OKC has talented players who can make their own shots. Westbrook is incredible, and it will be imperative to slow him (and George and Anthony) down.
Who’s your favorite Oklahoma City Thunder player?
Diana Allen: Steve Adams. He plays hard and has a fun personality.
Jason Walker: Steven Adams. He’s tough, works hard, and is super underrated (for now).
James Hansen: Paul George. He’s one of those players that can fit in with any team. Who doesn’t want a an elite wing defender that hits threes and gets buckets?
Kaleb Searle: Steven Adams by a country mile. He’s super talented and seems like one of the few personalities on the Thunder that would be genuinely fun to be around.
Sam Goodrich: There are a lot of journeymen on the roster this year who have bounced around the league. Nick Collison is probably my favorite. He’s made a career on scrappiness, and like a box of chocolates, you never quite know what you’re going to get from him, which only adds to the anticipation.
Spencer Campbell: Adams, by far, for the same reason I love Rudy. He does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet but that change the game. Tip balls, 50/50 balls, continuos motor, not afraid to back down. I would love to have him on our team as a replacement to Favors if he decides to sign elsewhere.
Jordan Cummings: Paul George. He’s one of the premiere perimeter defenders in the NBA, and his most likely assignment will be shutting down Donovan Mitchell. He can do everything a modern wing/small ball 4 needs to do, with no real holes in his game (though he’s been in a shooting slump recently). He’s the OKC player I would most like to see on this Utah Jazz roster. He’d fit perfectly next to Mitchell, Ingles, and Gobert.
Andy Bailey: Steven Adams. The quotes. His willingness to cede rebounds to Westbrook. The bruising play without being dirty. He’s among my favorite guys in the league, actually.
Tavan Parker: Paul George is the player that I would most want on the Jazz, but Russell Westbrook can be one of the most entertaining players in the world. They may have a system that allows him to stat-seek sometimes, but he plays all-out all of the time and I respect that.
Kristine Jakins: Steven Adams, I guess. He’s a cutie.
Mychal Lowman: *Russell Westbrook face* “Ahhh, that’s very interesting.” I had to go last in this one because there is so much disrespect on here for a guy who just averaged a triple-double for the second consecutive season in a row. We all love to hate Russ because it’s Russ. But man, I’d love to have this guy on the Jazz. He’s fearless. Attacks the rim without abandon. He’s stylish as hell. He champions Mountain Dew which is the alcoholic beverage of choice in Utah. Imagine what he could do with a coach like Quin Snyder. He’s filthy, and I love him for it.
Finish this sentence: The Utah Jazz will win this series if ...
Mychal Lowman: ... they execute their offense and learn that the knockout blow won’t come in the first quarter. During Utah’s game against Portland, it appeared Utah was playing like the weight and the magnitude of the game was crushing them down. Every possession they played, whether it was in the 1st or 4th, they played with the frantic play of a team that was worried about losing. The carefree team we saw against Golden State was gone. To quote Ricky, “Be happy.” If the Jazz play like they’re running on house money, things will get fun.
Diana Allen: The Jazz will win this series if they play well on offense. We need to see ball movement and good shots. I am excited to see playoff Donovan. I think if he does well, we will win.
Jason Walker: The Jazz keep it together on offense. The defense will be there, we all know that. Rudy will be Rudy and most games will finish under or around 100 points. It just depends on if Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles don’t fade like they did against Portland and in basically every other loss in the last 30 or so games.
James Hansen: Joe Ingles has a good series. Donovan Mitchell will receive a ton of attention and that will open things up for Ingles to hit shots and run secondary pick and rolls.
Kaleb Searle: Ricky Rubio’s career year continues. If he can keep his hot shooting streak going that adds a whole new dimension to this team. OKC will probably key in on Mitchell and Ingles, meaning Rubio will get a lot of open looks. If he hits them, Utah will be fine in this series.
Sam Goodrich: The Jazz put the ball through the hoop more than the Thunder. Sarcasm aside, defense is going to be huge. Our offense will have good games and bad games, but if we can keep OKC relatively in check, we will put ourselves in the position to win every game in the series.
Spencer Campbell: Rubio averages 15 points a game and Ingles shoots above 40% from three. Those two are the key.
Jordan Cummings: Westbrook is forced to be a jump shooter. Stay at home on shooters, let Gobert protect the rim, crash the defensive glass HARD, and let Westbrook shoot his team out of every game. Utah can’t afford to let shooters get hot. On offense, Mitchell needs to score efficiently and Ingles needs to hit his threes. Everything else should sort itself out.
Andy Bailey: ...they knock down threes. Utah’s 43-14 when it hits at least 10 threes. And without the leader of their defense (Andre Roberson), the Thunder will break down and leave guys on the perimeter. That’s especially true of possessions in which Utah works late into the shot clock.
Tavan Parker: They continue to play to their strenghts, meaning lockdown defense and a fast-motion offense. Over the last 30 games the Utah Jazz are 24-6 while the Thunder are 18-12. If the Jazz can keep playing the way they have to end the season then I view them as the favorites despite being the 5 seed.
Kristine Jakins: Rubio keeps playing well. He is a key aspect to the team’s offense. Rubio has a huge impact on the court.
Finish this sentence: The Utah Jazz will lose this series if ...
Mychal Lowman: Playoff George makes an appearance. Paul George was a monster on those Indiana teams and made LeBron James’s life a living nightmare in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. If that Paul George shows up to this series? Goodnight.
Diana Allen: They allow the refs to get into their heads. They will also lose if they struggle on the offense end. They have to make their threes!
Jason Walker: they allow Russell Westbrook get into a rhythm. In OKC’s three wins over Utah this year, Westbrook shot 53.2 percent on just over 20 shots per game and wasn’t below 45 percent in any of the three games. In the one game the Jazz won, Westbrook went 2-11.
James Hansen: Paul George morphs into playoff Paul George. I’m not sure this can happen with Russell Westbrook being on the same team. But if George goes nuts, OKC is a very tough out.
Kaleb Searle: Donovan Mitchell can’t adjust to playoff intensity quickly. We saw what happened in Portland when Donovan was bothered by physical defense and shot poorly on a bad selection. To some extent, this offense goes as the rook goes.
Spencer Campbell: Westbrook averages a triple double for the series. The Jazz have done well under pressure, including our rookies and new additions. I think the playoff pressure is an entirely new animal. How will Rubio, Mitchell, and Royce handle the playoff intensity and a defense that has four days to prepare as well as make adjustments over a two week period. I expect some new wrinkles/additions to the offense and how we execute those could be the difference in the series.
Jordan Cummings: Adams dominates the paint and Westbrook can kick out for easy looks for teammates. Westbrook and Adams are the keys to this series. If the Jazz don’t gang rebound defensively, Adams WILL get enough offensive boards to make up for Westbrook and Melo’s less than efficient shooting. If Westbrook is allowed to drive and kick, Utah will be in big, big trouble.
Andy Bailey: ...they can’t find anyone to slow Westbrook down. He’s a force of nature, sometimes in bad ways, but generally in good ones.
Tavan Parker: They lose their composure due to the higher intensity of the playoffs. The Trail Blazers came out swinging in the last game of the regular season and may have given teams a blueprint of how to knock the Jazz of their game mentally with more physical basketball.
Kristine Jakins: the refs are terrible. Or if the Jazz don’t make their threes.
Put up or shut up time. What’s your prediction?
Mychal Lowman: OKC in 7
Diana Allen: Jazz in 6
Jason Walker: Jazz in 7
James Hansen: Jazz in 6
Sam Goodrich: Jazz in 6
Kaleb Searle: Jazz in 7
Spencer Campbell: OKC in 7
Jordan Cummings: Jazz in 6
Andy Bailey: OKC in 7
Tavan Parker: Jazz in 6
Kristine Jakins: Jazz in 6