It’s not often that the expression “the final hour” is meant literally, but Thunder and NBA fans learned the full extent of its definition around midnight on the final day of the NBA’s regular season. It took 82 games and the waning hours of the final day for the playoff picture to be fully clarified.
And although it feels like a heist made for a Hollywood film, the Thunder will not only be in the playoffs, they will have home-court advantage, at least throughout the first round.
The Thunder also have another distinct advantage: their matchup is very gettable. OKC’s divisional rival the Utah Jazz have not fared well against the Thunder this season…although the two have not played against each other since December 23rd, where OKC defeated Utah 103-89.
Although it’s human nature to search for patterns, the playoffs are a different animal. Don’t count on a Thunder sweep — or even a gentleman’s sweep.
As is often the case with the NBA playoffs, the regular season results must necessarily be thrown out. Here are a few reasons why: the Jazz have jettisoned Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson, and Thabo Sefolosha will be out until next season. Jae Crowder, a trade deadline addition who is tailor-made for this squad, has averaged nearly starter minutes. Dante Exum missed all four games between the two, and Royce O’Neale, who barely played against OKC, has taken on a much bigger load of minutes.
Biggest of all for the Jazz — at 7’1″, quite literally — is Rudy Gobert. With the likely Defensive Player of the Year, the Jazz had a +3 point differential against the Thunder. Without him, the Jazz were -42. Gobert is still the Jazz’s best player, and his play directly correlates with Utah’s success. It all makes for a team that has been distinctly different in the second half of the season.
And then there’s the fact that OKC is missing Andre Roberson, who would almost definitely draw the tough Donovan Mitchell assignment. The defense, on which the Thunder could hang their hat on early in the season, became much shakier. The Thunder have not seen the Jazz since Roberson went down.
Outside of Gobert vs. Steven Adams, my most-watched matchup will be Ricky Rubio against Russell Westbrook. Although Rubio is dishing the ball at a career low rate, he’s shooting better than ever, which has always been the biggest knock against his game. At 6’4″, Rubio can go toe-to-toe with Westbrook physically. Rubio will poke and prod, so Westbrook must stay level-headed.
To boil that down a bit: OKC’s 3-1 regular series season tally is not necessarily a great predictor of what will happen in this series, as both teams are starkly different than they were in December and earlier.
It’s tempting to try to transpose regular season success into postseason success, but it’s not always so. On one hand, the Thunder have the high-end superstar talent most agree that a team needs to have any measure of postseason success. On the other…the talent hasn’t meshed as many expected it would.
And for the Jazz? Although they are (debatably) missing a bona fide superstar, they do play the quote-unquote right way: taking good shots late in the clock, taking care of the ball, and always playing with a chip on their shoulder. Quin Snyder is a gritty, intense coach, and it’s always difficult to tell if he’s plotting someone’s death, planning his next set piece, or perhaps both as he’s milling about the sideline.
PREDICTION: I really don’t want to do this. It’s almost too close to call. But if I have to….Thunder in seven games