Russell Westbrook wrapped up his second straight season averaging a triple-double, the first player in NBA history to record that feat, and somehow the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is still searching for the respect he believes he deserves. The reigning Kia MVP probably won’t finish in the top five of the voting this time around, which means the player who plays with enough rage to fuel two or three teams enters this postseason ready to go on the war path with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony flanking him.
Westbrook will have a kindred spirit of sorts staring him down in this series in Utah rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell. His season will likely end with someone else (Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons) walking off with the Kia Rookie of the Year hardware he thinks he earned. Mitchell snuck up on the league by totally outplaying his Draft position, leading the Jazz and all rookies in scoring. He also served as the catalyst for a team that was physically and emotionally gutted when All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward bolted for Boston in free agency.
Mitchell helped establish a new identity for a Jazz team that boasts the league’s best rim protector (Rudy Gobert, a frontrunner for Kia Defensive Player of the Year honors) and revitalized point guard Ricky Rubio. The playoffs offer both Westbrook and Mitchell at least one more opportunity to remind the world that the voters are getting it wrong -- in the minds of these two players, at least.
3 quick questions and answers
- Will playoff veterans Paul George and Carmelo Anthony rise to the moment? That’s only possible if Westbrook decides to share the ball and leadership load with his All-Star counterparts. They all have plenty of playoff experience, give Oklahoma City one of its clear advantages over Utah in this series. But if Westbrook isn’t willing to spread the responsibility around, all of that experience on this stage will be wasted. Westbrook is the key to making sure both George and Anthony stay involved at all times
- These teams haven't seen each other since Dec. 23. Does that mean anything? Perhaps. Mitchell was still introducing himself to the league. Gobert missed the final two games against the Thunder due to injury. Rubio was still working through his transition to a new system and Jae Crowder, who will be a critical defensive cog in this series, was still playing for Cleveland. The fact is, the Thunder handed that Jazz team four of the 19 losses they piled up by Christmas. They haven’t seen this current Jazz team, the one that finished the regular season on a 33-15 roll.
- Which big man will affect the series more: Rudy Gobert or Steven Adams? Adams might be one of the more underrated players in the league at any position. He’s a physical force and a fine defender/rim protector in his own right. But Gobert is an elite rim protector and as good as there is in the league right now (given his length, athleticism and spectacular timing). He’s also better than you realize offensively. Gobert gets the slight edge here, but will have to hold up under the constant assault of the blunt-force trauma Adams dishes out on the regular.
The number to know
27.7 percent -- The Thunder led the league in offensive rebounding percentage for the third straight season, grabbing 27.7 percent of available offensive boards. That rate was 31.6 percent with Steven Adams, who ranked third among individuals in offensive rebounding percentage, on the floor. The Jazz ranked fourth in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, but no team grabbed a greater percentage of available offensive rebounds against Utah than the Thunder did, And no player grabbed more offensive rebounds against the Jazz than Adams (18). Rudy Gobert played in only two of the four meetings, but the Thunder's offensive rebounding percentage was higher with Gobert on the floor (31 percent) than it was otherwise against the Jazz (24 percent). For the season, the Jazz were 19-21 (including 0-3 against the Thunder) when they allowed 11 or more second chance points and 29-13 (1-0 against OKC) when they allowed 10 or fewer. Keeping Adams off the glass will be critical in this series. -- John Schuhmann
Making the pick
This is as fair a fight as you’d expect from a No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup. The Thunder have more star power, though that didn’t always serve them well during a trying regular season. But the Jazz boast the sort of chemistry every team wishes it had, with everyone playing their specific role to perfection and excelling in a system that has been good to whoever buys in. The chess match between Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Thunder coach Billy Donovan should be interesting in a series that is truly a toss up. Thunder in 7.