GameDay is officially here. The 2018 NBA Playoffs begin for the Utah Jazz today as they face off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In January, the Utah Jazz would just be glad to be in the playoffs, but that was before they became a dominant force in their last 30+ games of the season. Utah has steamrolled through the second half of their schedule looking more like a Top 5 team in the NBA rather than a fringe playoff participant. While their historic playoff push didn’t yield them home court in the playoffs, it did position them in the five seed.
The Utah Jazz will be hoping that they can quickly overcome their playoff inexperience versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. Utah’s most playoff experienced player is Jae Crowder who has a combined 35 games. Paul George? He has almost twice that amount. Russell Westbrook? Same. Carmelo? Same. This OKC Thunder team is playoff battled and ready. Two of Utah’s starters have never been to the playoffs: Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell. Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert played in the playoffs for the first time last year. Rudy Gobert missed much of that while fighting an injury he suffered in the first 30 seconds of Game 1 against the Clippers. Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, and George Hill are gone. This Utah Jazz team is new.
That could both be a blessing and a curse. This Utah team might be immune to the pressure because they’re playing with house money. By all accounts, a team that started the season as poorly as Utah should never be in the playoffs, let alone as a five seed. They find themselves in an underdog position again. The Jazz have also been an excellent road team. They’re 20-21 on the season, but since January they’ve been on a tear. They’ve only lost two games on the road since their loss in Atlanta—one in overtime and one by only 9 points after playing three games in four days. Utah could very well be the best road team in the playoffs. That should scare the Thunder, their home court advantage might not be much of an advantage at all.
The scoring responsibility for the Utah Jazz will rest upon Donovan Mitchell’s young shoulders. The rookie phenom has proven time and time again that he’s not your ordinary rookie. The Spida-man has shown Peter Parker-like qualities all season as he’s overcome his experience deficit to other players and become one of the biggest strengths on this Utah squad. Like Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and no where is that more true than in this series against Oklahoma City. A rookie shouldn’t be tasked with the responsibility of leading a team to a first round victory without home court advantage a year after that same team lost their star and second leading scorer ... yet here we are. Donovan has shown he has the ability to show up in big games, so we are eager to see what he does on the national stage in the playoffs.
Quin Snyder and his talented staff will once again have the coaching advantage against Billy Donovan and his team. Quin Snyder was able to overcome injuries to Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward offensive struggles, and Boris Diaw olé defense to out coach Doc Rivers last year. While Snyder now has a healthier Jazz team by a mile, he faces a much more talented Oklahoma City squad. How he schemes against Russell Westbrook and Paul George will decide this series. More so, how he helps break Gobert’s streak of rough games against Steven Adams could completely change this series. Quin Snyder is like Sherlock Holmes, the more time you give him to stay in his mind palace and find a solution, the less likely you are to defeat him.
Joe Ingles proved to be an X-factor last year as he made hilariously intimidating three point shots over DeAndre Jordan, stared down the Clippers bench repeatedly, and proved to be a JJ Reddick and Chris Paul stopper. Look for Quin Snyder to pull out all the stops to frustrate Russell Westbrook by putting Joe Ingles on him. Joe steps up big in moments like these.
The real matchup Utah has to win—because they have the advantage—is the matchup of Derrick Favors vs anybody. Derrick Favors averaged only 28 minutes a game this season as Utah’s new medical and training staff kept the big man healthy for a full season—the first time since 2013. Now their patience will pay off. Derrick Favors minutes will have the green light in the playoffs. A healthy Derrick Favors will beast over Carmelo Anthony’s corpse, Patrick Patterson, and Corey Brewer. If Favors has strong games in this series, Utah will be in the second round.
The bench will be equally as important. Utah’s bench boasts Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Jae Crowder, and Jonas Jerebko. If they have a big series, Utah will stay rested throughout it as Billy Donovan will undoubtedly play his starters more minutes each game as his bench is not as stout. Dante Exum being healthy again and Jae Crowder playing large could turn Utah into favorites rather than underdogs.
Oklahoma City is nothing to laugh at. They’re like the talented high school kid that can sleep through class and still get straight A’s. If they maximize their potential and ability they’re far beyond anything Utah can keep up with. That’s a giant if, though. Russell Westbrook despite averaging a triple-double hasn’t shown the ability to trust his much more talented teammates all season. There are moments yes, but they come around as often as Marvel movies. Paul George looks to be a guy who’s planning his exit strategy. Will he want to go 110% and risk an injury before what will undoubtedly be the last free agency period of his career where he can get paid big time? Then there’s Carmelo Anthony whose real opponent this season has been Father Time. He struggles to be a plus player while on the court because of his defense. If you get unselfish Russ, focused Paul George, and Olympic ‘Melo, this team is a championship contender. But instead, that team like a Marvel movie seems rooted in fiction and fantasy.
So here we are ... at today’s game. This series feels bigger than last year. While last year felt like an audition for Gordon Hayward’s services in free agency, this year feels like the start of something brand new. It feels hallowed. This Utah Jazz team has taken a franchise and fanbase that was torn apart just 10 months ago, and healed the wound. Even better, they don’t feel like they are playing above their ability and talent. This is the start of a special chapter in Jazz history. Now that they’re in the playoffs, the Utah Jazz have the chance to show the NBA that they’ve come back to the playoffs stronger, retooled, and better.
When: Sunday, Apr. 15, 2018 • 4:30 PM MT
Where: Moda Center • Portland, OR
TV: TNT, TNTOT, AT&T Sports Net - Rocky Mountain
Radio: 1280 AM The Zone, ESPN Radio
Thabo Sefolosha - MCL avulsion - out for the season
Oklahoma City Thunder:
Corey Brewer - Knee - Day to Day
Alex Abrines - Concussion Protocol - Day to Day
Andre Roberson - Knee - Out for season
What to watch for
The Utah Jazz’s battle with inexperience
It seems to cheesy to say that the Utah Jazz’s biggest enemy day is themselves, but that’s what you have to talk about when the Jazz have been the better team over the remaining part of the season since these two teams last met. Utah should be the superior team with the better defense and the rejuvenated offense thanks to Ricky Rubio’s three point resurrection. Jae Crowder, whom the Utah Jazz added in February at the trade deadline, will be a vital playoff piece and counsel to this Utah Jazz squad.
A completely new team
This is who got minutes in the Utah Jazz’s last game against Oklahoma City:
Ricky Rubio - 23 min
Donovan Mitchell - 37 min
Joe Ingles - 33 min
Derrick Favors - 34 min
Rodney Hood - 31 min (No longer with the team)
Joe Johnson - 22 min (No longer with the team)
Thabo Sefolosha - 16 min (Out for season)
Ekpe Udoh - 14 min (Break glass in case of emergency center now)
Alec Burks - 13 min (Out of the rotation)
Royce O’Neale - 5 min (Now a big part of rotation)
Rudy Gobert - 0 min (Was out with an injury)
Dante Exum - 0 min (Was out with an injury)
Jae Crowder - 0 min (Wasn’t yet with the team)
Oklahoma City hasn’t played the Utah Jazz. They played some other team from Utah in December, but they haven’t played the Utah Jazz. Utah’s hope is that the unfamiliarity that OKC has with this squad can give them an early advantage in the series and that by the time OKC is able to make adjustments, it’s too late.
Most likely Jazz Killer: Paul George
Paul George said he’s ready for “Playoff P” to make an appearance. Paul George has led an Indiana Pacers team only bolstered by Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill to Eastern Conference Finals appearances and once had the Lebron James-led Miami Heat on the ropes. Playoff P might be a dumb nickname, but it’s scarier in person. If the Jazz suffer a bad loss today, it’ll be at the hands of Paul George.