The Oklahoma City Thunder’s date with the Utah Jazz is layered with storylines. Typically the 4th/5th seeded game is met with tempered expectations due to the winner playing (more than likely) the 1st seed in the next round. With the star power across the board however, this matchup is building into must-see TV.
Utah’s improbable run to a postseason series bears a lot of similarities to the Thunder’s last season.
Get the obvious out of the way. Both small market teams — Utah ranks 26th while Oklahoma City is 28th in terms of population numbers. While both cities have a plethora of great qualities, you cannot escape that in a league dominated by big-name stars, big cities and even bigger egos, the Jazz and Thunder always have an uphill battle in terms of bringing in top-tier talent.
Then we move into actual basketball. Kevin Durant’s infamous departure from Oklahoma City for better championship prospects in Golden State was supposed to cripple the franchise. Russell Westbrook was going to leave, the Thunder were going to fall from the penthouse of the NBA down to the purgatory of the lottery. Everything Oklahoma City had carefully built was crumbling before them.
Since that July 4th in 2016, things played out a little differently.
Oklahoma City had an optimistic view for the future. A foundation of success with a star in Westbrook and an impressive core of young, developed role players in Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. They rode that momentum in the shadow of Durant’s exit into the postseason. Albeit, a short lived playoff run where they were defeated in five by the Houston Rockets.
To say the mindset of July 4th to the postseason of 2016 were different is an understatement.
The Jazz boast their own tale of picking themselves up by their bootstraps in the wake of a star departure and having a successful season. While Gordon Hayward is not near the player as Durant, he was still an All-Star, foundational name — a face of the franchise.
Hayward’s exit from the mountains of Utah left little to be excited for in terms of the Jazz’ immediate future. Sure they were left with a towering-defensive supernova in Rudy Gobert, some nice role players like Joe Ingles and the (at the time) recently acquired Ricky Rubio.
Then Donovan Mitchell happened.
The similarities between Mitchell and Westbrook are there. High usage players — Mitchell ranked 21st amongst players in the final 21 games with a usage rate of 30.5, the Jazz won 17 of those. Westbrook’s historic usage rate of 2016-17 at 41 percent was necessary for the Thunder to succeed, much like Mitchell’s rookie campaign.
They even shared a special moment after Oklahoma City’s 103-89 victory in Salt Lake City. Meeting at half court, the two guards were seen embracing one another, a sight not frequently seen concerning Westbrook and an opponent that was never once a teammate.
“Don’t stop,” Mitchell said when asked what Westbrook told him after the game. “Can’t really tell you anything else, but just ‘Don’t stop, keep going.'”
From the depths of big-name NBA player departures — where small market teams like Cleveland and Orlando plummeted in the wake of their stars leaving in the past — to the optimism of postseason glory with positive futures ahead. Utah and Oklahoma City seemed connected far beyond their small-market/Northwest Division rival qualities.
Utah was supposed to be on the outside looking in, much like many believed Oklahoma City would when Durant left. These two franchises are great examples of small market success when you build a strong culture of winning and development.
Considering all this, it seems fitting that these teams should meet in the first round. For the Thunder and Jazz, it will be their first postseason meeting ever. With the stars, young and old, storylines and similarities, it certainly has the potential to be exciting.