Utah Jazz: Thunder present challenges for Jazz
By Bill Oram
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Nov 29 2012 03:21PM
Oklahoma City • The Utah Jazz have won seven of their past 10 games and are quietly showing signs of the improved team they hoped to be.
And what about Friday’s opponent, the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder? There’s been nothing quiet about their season. The revamped Thunder are 12-4, shutting down former teammates and holding bad teams to scoring totals at which one can only chuckle.
The Jazz say they have no choice but to look at Friday’s matchup as a chance to make a statement against a division rival.
"You think the guys would love to play against a team that everybody thinks is better than you are," coach Tyrone Corbin said. "They’re one of the best teams in the league. ... We have a chance to beat them if we come out and play right."
They’ll have to play really right. The Thunder are near the top of most statistical categories: They lead the league in points, with 105.4 per game, are second in field-goal percentage (48.3 percent) and third in 3-pointer percentage (41.6). They beat opponents by a league-best nine points per game. Kevin Durant, the three-time defending scoring champion, is No. 2 in the league with 26.6 points per game.
"It’s a great challenge for us," Jazz guard Gordon Hayward said, "but it will be a pretty good opportunity."
The Jazz may be short-handed. Forward Marvin Williams is listed as doubtful after showing symptoms of a concussion following a hard fall during Wednesday’s 96-84 win over New Orleans, and point guard Mo Williams will be a game-time decision with a right foot injury that has kept him out of the past three games.
The Thunder lost in five games to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, but that was an experience Corbin said prepared Oklahoma City for seasons like this one.
"They are a great basketball team," Corbin said. "They’re a team that’s experienced. They’ve been to the big dance last year. They know what it takes to get there now and they’re fighting to get back there and be ready when they [do]."
The Thunder made one of the splashiest trades of the offseason, when four days before the regular season began they sent popular sixth man James Harden, with whom they could not negotiate a contract extension, to Houston in exchange for guard Kevin Martin.
When Corbin said in the preseason that the deal made both teams better, it was easy to be skeptical. But Martin has flourished in the same role Harden occupied, averaging 15.8 points per game in 29 minutes.
"Obviously he’s a scorer," Hayward said, "and he proved that when he was in Sacramento, and he proved that when he was in Houston. He brings experience."
On Wednesday, Martin and the Thunder got the better of Houston and Harden, beating the Rockets 120-98 and holding Harden to 3-of-16 shooting.
One night earlier, the Thunder held Charlotte to 69 points in a 45-point victory.
Of course, the Jazz could be next, particularly if their propensity for poor road performances continues.
The Jazz have been looking for the right combination to start games, and the potential absences of both Marvin Williams and Mo Williams are a major concern. Utah has won just three of its 10 games away from EnergySolutions Arena.
A slow start, which has been a Jazz trademark this season, may be impossible to overcome against a team like Oklahoma City.
"We can’t afford to think that we can come out here on their home floor and get down and compete with these guys," Corbin said. "We’ve got to make sure we come out ready right from the beginning with a defensive mindset. They’re going to be aggressive, but we’re just as aggressive as they are, and we’ll be fine."