The difference between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder comes in the form of star power. Quin Snyder’s group is led by Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — two players serving the roles of subtle stars. To anybody who regularly pays attention to this Jazz team, the subtle stardom isn’t so subtle. Gobert is integral to the team’s offensive efficiency and clearly leads what’s typically the best defensive execution in the NBA. While Mitchell will eventually be an overt star in this league, the rookie has more consistency of a subtle star on the rise.
In Game 1 in Oklahoma City, the Thunder reminded everybody of how overwhelming overt stardom can be. Instead of Russell Westbrook acting as a battering ram into the heart of the Jazz defense, we saw a much more balanced attack. Paul George, Westbrook’s running mate, dropped eight 3-pointers on the night as he totaled 36 points to lead the Thunder in their 116-108 victory to take a 1-0 series lead. If it’s even possible, Westbrook flanked him with a quiet 29 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists.
That overt stardom proved to be too much for the Jazz. Gobert had a solid game defensively, but nothing resembling his Defensive Player of the Year award case. Mitchell looked incredible in his playoff debut, but a pinky toe injury took him out of the end of the night with the game mostly in hand. Ricky Rubio’s 5-of-18 shooting night looked more like the rookie shooting that plagued his scouting report, as the Thunder essentially begged him to beat them.
Prior to Game 1, George wanted to remind the media of “Playoff P,” his postseason alter ego that apparently torches wing corps. A few people laughed at the notion, especially early on when the Jazz jumped out to a double-digit lead. Once George found his rhythm within the flow of the game, it didn’t really matter what the Jazz did to defend him. Playoff P had a flamethrower in his hands. He took off-balanced shots in which his own screening teammate leaned into him. He dribbled smoothly into jumpers and spaced the floor into the few zones the Jazz defense couldn’t cover as they collapsed on other areas of the court.
At a certain point, the ball leaving George’s hands felt like an inevitability to light up the scoreboard above. The final score looked closer than the majority of the second half would lead to you believe the balance of the game rested. Playoff P and the Westbrook smothered the flow of the Jazz usually amazing defense to take control of the series. As long as Mitchell’s pinky toe is fine moving forward, the Jazz can feel better about him matching the effort he put out with a 27-point, 10-rebound performance in Game 1.
Utah can make four adjustments heading into Game 2 in order to steal a game in OKC and put pressure on the overt stars of the Thunder.
Adjustment 1: Keep the ball in the middle of the floor
When the Jazz grabbed the early lead, their offense executed relentlessly. Every action saw the Jazz creating space right down the middle of the lane. It led to layups, extra dump-off passes for dunks, and wide-open jumpers as the Thunder defense scrambled to recover. The Jazz usually do a great job of keeping the ball in the middle of the floor. With all of their actions, hand-offs, and ball reversals, they typically keep opposing defenses moving side-to-side. That’s what you want as an offense.
Once the Thunder started defending that initial action more aggressively, the Jazz lost all of their rhythm. Oklahoma City pushed an dribble penetration attempts out to the side or back away from the hoop. They had the Jazz moving in the wrong direction, making any rotation easy to return from. Once the Jazz keep the ball in the middle of the floor, baseline cuts and open corner shooters become big targets for the next pass. Utah can trust rollers like Derrick Favors and Gobert to make those decisions.
Ideally, the Jazz can utilize more Joe Ingles in these pick-and-roll situations, even if a defender like George is hounding him. Ingles still rates out as one of the top playmakers in the pick-and-roll this season.
Adjustment 2: Quicker recoveries to the corner 3 helps rotations
When the Jazz lost grip of the proverbial rope, it had a lot to do with the Thunder offense finding its way into the middle of the floor. Multiple times, Jerami Grant found Alex Abrines alone in the left corner for an easy 3-point attempt. As the Jazz scrambled to find corner rotations, the wings were left too open for the firepower George was bringing to them. The Jazz allowed 29 3-point attempts in the game. Utah ranked fifth in the NBA in 3-point rate (percentage of field goal attempts coming from downtown) at 31.3 percent.
Oklahoma City shot 34.1 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, knocking down 14 of them. That’s just not the type of 3-point defense most expect from the Jazz defense. When the Jazz scrambled to close off the middle of the floor and then find soft spots on the perimeter, they simply arrived too late to truly defend those shots. Jazz were 17-19 this season when allowing 10 or more 3-point makes. Make that 17-20 on the season now.
Adjustment 3: Blitz Playoff P and recover
One way to keep the Thunder from getting into the middle of the floor is treat George like the Thunder adjust to Rubio on offense. When Rubio ran early pick-and-rolls, they left the middle of the floor open and Utah took advantage of it. When the Thunder adjusted and took utah out of their rhythm on offense, they hedged hard on pick actions to move Rubio away from where he wanted to go.
The Jazz need to treat George the same way. Obviously, the Thunder eventually dared Rubio to take a lot of open jumpers. But the initial action in the offense made him give the ball up in a less than productive manner. Utah has to make someone other than George beat them. The Thunder didn’t do a great job of sharing the ball, but George made up for that with incendiary shooting.
Utah needs to force the ball out of his hands and make Westbrook hit jumpers or Carmelo Anthony try to take over. As long as everything is moved away from the basket and shots are contested, Playoff P can be doused with a little cold water.
Adjustment 4: Control vertical spacing around the rim on both ends
Gobert and Favors didn’t look terribly comfortable going up against Steven Adams and swiping help defenders throughout most of this game. The Jazz have to do a better job of allowing their big men to play big around the basket. That means no more low passes to big men cutting down the lane. Keep the ball high and allow them to eliminate the space between them and the basket quickly. It sounds like a simple action, but too many passes insider looked rushed and forced. Once that becomes established, the Thunder will have to dig into the paint and it’ll leave more shooters open for the Jazz.
On the other end of the floor, Gobert needs a stronger performance in protecting the rim. He altered shots but he also allowed too many untimely shots inside — like a second half finish by Grant at the rim when he went right through the French center. Normally, these are things Gobert and the Jazz excel at executing. So it won’t take a large adjustment for them to get back to what they do. They just have to do it.
Moving forward in the series, the Jazz can easily recover to even up the series and put pressure on George, Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder. They just have to play Jazz basketball.