UTAH JAZZ (48-34) at OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (48-34)
Game 1 Tip-off: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET
Line: OKC -3.5, Total: 205
Jazz-Thunder is perhaps the biggest toss-up of the first round.Some interesting playoff matchups were bound to emerge from the mess in the middle of the Western Conference standings, and lo and behold, he we are looking at a fascinating 4-5 series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz. Each of these teams managed to subvert expectations this regular season, albeit in opposite ways. The Jazz significantly overachieved in that regard, overcoming the losses of 2016-17 leading scorers Gordon Hayward and George Hill to finish in the same No. 5 spot that they did a year ago. The Thunder, on the other hand, were expected to improve significantly after the blockbuster acquisitions of forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And while they moved up from six to four in the standings, they ultimately only won one more game than they did a year ago. This series offers several compelling matchups, primarily the one between reigning MVP PG Russell Westbrook for the Thunder and Utah PG Donovan Mitchell, the first rookie to lead a playoff-bound team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony did so for the Nuggets nearly 15 years ago. Then there's the battle on the interior, where likely Defensive Player of the Year C Rudy Gobert of the Jazz will do battle with vastly underappreciated C Steven Adams of the Thunder. Plus, Chesapeake Energy Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena offer two of the NBA's most rollicking atmosphere's, and that goes double for playoff time. Get some popcorn for this one.
Mitchell's recent spat with Ben Simmons over who deserves the NBA's Rookie of the Year trophy may have, unfortunately, taken some focus off of the subject of the dispute: his brilliant freshman campaign. Mitchell averaged 20.5 PPG for the season, and increased his scoring load over the course of the year, averaging more than that for each month after December. These two opponents got all four of their season matchups out of the way before the new year hit, but Mitchell went for 60 total points in two December games against the Thunder. But while Mitchell is the leader on offense, Gobert is the team's undisputed MVP. Gobert is an impossible combination of long, quick, strong and smart, all of which contributed to him finishing third in the league with 2.3 BPG this season. The Warriors foiled Gobert last year in the playoffs by forcing him to the perimeter on switches, and one concern for the Jazz is whether this year's postseason opponents will be able to do the same. After Mitchel and Gobert, Utah works with super-high-level role players, like SF Joe Ingles and PG Ricky Rubio. Ingles is one of the best three-and-D players in the NBA, and he shot a ridiculous 44% from deep this season. Rubio is one of the game's most intuitive passers, and a strong defender in his own right. And like seemingly every other player on the Jazz, PF Derrick Favors is underrated, too. Off the bench, SF Jae Crowder has found a good fit in Utah, and PG Dante Exum has become a valuable contributor after missing the first 60-plus games of the season.
NBA fans have a love-hate relationship with Westbrook, and the hate cycle has been in full swing since he bombed OKC to a five-game defeat in the first round against Houston last year. With a more capable supporting cast this time around, though, Russ will have no excuse if he takes 40 shots in a loss. All that said, he was great down the stretch as the Thunder scrapped for a playoff spot, and he can carry the team to victory in any given game. One thing he ought to do is stop shooting three-pointers, on which he hit less than 30% this regular season. George is Westbrook's main sidekick, but he's been somewhat subjugated in this offense since the All-Star break. That should no longer be the case now that the playoffs are here, seeing as George has given LeBron James all that he's worth in multiple playoff series over the years. He hit eight threes in the regular-season finale against Memphis, perhaps a sign that he's rounding into form at the perfect moment. Anthony is the x-factor, although, frankly, there's little reason to believe he'll move the needle for this team in a positive direction. His skills have disintegrated more than most would care to admit, but there remains a chance he could start to hit shots now that the stakes have been raised. Adams is a beast, averaging 9.0 RPG despite having so many boards taken away by the stat-chasing Westbrook. He had nine rebounds in each of OKC's three December wins against Utah, and 20 points in the first of those games, but only that one game took place prior to a serious injury that kept Gobert out for a good chunk of time. Keep an eye on SF Corey Brewer, who was brought in to replace injured DPOTY candidate Andre Roberson as a perimeter defender. At 32 years old and with a sprained knee, it's uncertain how long he'll be able to keep up with the grind of the playoffs.