Editor’s note: Second of a three-part series: What would a playoff series between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder look like?
SALT LAKE CITY — If the season ended today ...
It’s a hypothetical that has been uttered by nearly every sports fan at some point. Now that hypothetical could be a reality. We may not see the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season, but there is still hope that we could see the playoffs.
If the NBA playoffs start based on the conference positioning when the league shut down in mid-March, the Utah Jazz will be facing the Oklahoma City Thunder. So, let’s keep rolling with that hypothetical scenario and take a look at what a series might entail.
Today we’ll look at the Jazz defense.
There is a three-headed beast that leads the Thunder and it comes in the form of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. Each one is an incredibly dynamic and crafty guard who can score off the dribble, has a quick first step to the rim, knocks down outside shots, works the midrange and can playmake to boot.
There’s no sugarcoating this; stopping the Thunder guards is impossible. But finding ways to limit them would be the Jazz’s toughest challenge in a series against OKC.
Each one of the Thunder’s three guards is lethal, with the trio averaging a combined 56 points per game, but each one is a threat to go off for 30-plus points on any given night.
Quin Snyder put Joe Ingles on Chris Paul in the last meeting between the Jazz and OKC and that could be the case again, but if the Jazz start Mike Conley, it could be up to him to handle Paul as it was opening night of the 2019-20 season, with Ingles coming off the bench and taking over duties against Schroder.
The benefit to having Ingles on Paul is the length and size advantage that Ingles has. With Ingles proclivity for anticipating passing lanes, the hope is that he would limit Paul’s ability to facilitate.
Which brings me to the next Jazz defender, and perhaps the defensive X-factor for Utah in this series...
A series like this would be where Royce O’Neale earns his money and proves why he was worth the four-year $36 million extension he was given in January.
He’s had incredible moments over the years and even earlier this season as the Jazz’s most reliable defender, especially in transition. There’s been a significant drop-off in his defensive production over the last few months, which is fine if the goal is to get paid and ease off.
But, if the Jazz are going to succeed against a guard-heavy opponent they’re going to need O’Neale to lock things down.
O’Neale was, in large part, in charge of guarding Gilgeous-Alexander in past contests against the Thunder, but he could very well be tasked with guarding each of the Thunder’s three dynamic guards at any point in the series.
He’ll have to be not only precise and aware of his own man but they’ll need him to be on-guard in transition where earlier in the year he was more effective.
On opening night, the Jazz opened up the game with three consecutive nearly perfect defensive possessions, and then when the Thunder were coming down for a fast-break opportunity after a Jazz turnover, O’Neale got back in transition to stop Danilo Gallinari. That’s the O’Neale that the Jazz will need.
The Stifle Tower
Rudy Gobert very simply put would need to be absolutely dominant against the Thunder. It goes without saying that Gobert is the anchor and last line of the Jazz defense, but over the last month of NBA play something was significantly off about Gobert and he did not resemble the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year that Jazz fans have become accustomed to watching.
In a playoff series, if the Jazz don’t have superior rim protection from Gobert, there will be very little hope for them.
Steven Adams is closer to a traditional center than some of the other stretch bigs around the league, so Gobert wouldn’t have to worry so much about chasing him around the perimeter, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the Thunder are going to be looking for ways to lure Gobert away from the rim and catch him on a switch so they can let Adams go to work inside.
Even when Gobert does get sucked out to the perimeter, as he did in the clip below, after shutting down Paul on a drive inside, it’s the kind of recognition of the game situation displayed here that will be important. With the shot clock winding down and the game close, Gobert knew there wasn’t enough time for Paul to make any other play than a deep shot so he contested from the 3-point line, resulting in a miss and the Jazz recovering the ball.
One thing to keep in mind is that when Adams becomes frustrated or is having trouble finding the rim he can often resort to lobbing up hook shots which are not efficient and not his best look. Getting him rattled early would be a huge plus for the Jazz.
The Jazz defense has not been at all where they’d hoped it would be. In the last 15 games played the Jazz were 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 113.6.
They had a handful of lockdown games to start the season and since then they have been at the middle of the pack at best, landing at 11th overall with a defensive rating of 108.8 when the season stopped.
Who knows what kind of impact this long layoff is going to have on the defense. Feels like the last thing a struggling defense needs is a huge break from playing with each other, but I could be wrong. For the Jazz’s sake, I hope I am.
The lineups for both teams have changed so much since the last time they played with newly added players, injuries and rotation changes. That means that from a defensive standpoint, a playoff series between the Jazz and Thunder could be slightly experimental and reactionary. Those words can often come with a negative connotation, but experimentation in the postseason is often just the thing that leads a team to victory.