Back in December, following a 103-89 home loss to the Thunder, Donovan Mitchell was spellbound as Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook all lined up to talk to him.
Asked about it afterward, Mitchell said he was a little star-struck: “It’s a blessing and an honor for that to happen, but in the same light, I want to beat those guys.”
He — and the Jazz — are getting that chance.
It’s a high calling: The Jazz (48-34) had a losing record against only two Western Conference teams this year, Houston (0-4) and Oklahoma City (1-3). And looking at the roster, it’s easy to understand why.
The Thunder (48-34) boast some of the biggest stars in the league after swinging massive offseason deals for George and Anthony. There’s also Westbrook, a polarizing but undeniable talent who won the MVP award last season — in large part for doing something that he repeated this year.
On Wednesday, Westbrook became the only person to ever average a triple-double in two seasons, which required more than a little extra effort. His season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies saw him grab 20 rebounds, in part because he needed 16 to average a triple-double for the season. But while some have dismissed that chase as a stat-padding sideshow, the Thunder see it very differently.
“Last year, everybody tracked it and this year, nobody really did,” coach Billy Donovan said in his post-game press conference. “I think it speaks to his greatness as a player, the fact that he can impact the game in a lot of different ways.”
That’s one of many concerns for the Jazz: Westbrook has averaged 28 points in the three Thunder wins, and has triple-doubles in two of those matchups. Another is George, whose size on the perimeter can frustrate opposing guards and has a reputation as a playoff performer. Another is Steven Adams, who is one of the few centers in the league equipped to physically bang with Rudy Gobert.
Oct. 21, 2017 • Jazz 96, Thunder 87
In just the third game of the season for the Jazz, Utah held Russell Westbrook to 6 points.
Dec. 5, 2017 • Thunder 100, Jazz 94
Utah gave up a fourth-quarter lead despite 31 points from Donovan Mitchell, and Westbrook had a 34-point triple-double.
Dec. 20, 2017 • Thunder 107, Jazz 79
Without Gobert or Mitchell, Utah scored just nine points in the first quarter in a blowout loss.
Dec. 23, 2017 • Thunder 103, Jazz 89
Westbrook and George combined for 53 points, while only three Jazz players scored in double figures.
There’s also the defense: Against Oklahoma City, the Jazz have averaged under 90 points per game this season.
And yet, the Thunder are not exactly what they were. All four of the matchups with the Jazz had Andre Roberson, a defensive stalwart who has since been lost for the season. Roberson guarded Donovan Mitchell in previous games with success. Then the Jazz have also gotten healthier: Gobert was missing for two of the losses. When he played, Utah went 1-1 against Oklahoma City.
Without Roberson, the Thunder have been merely average, ranking just 15th in defensive rating (107.0) since his injury. And with defensive gamblers in the lineup including George and Westbrook, the Jazz could find ways to exploit that.
“When the Thunder lose, it’s because a lack of discipline,” said Fred Katz, who covers the Thunder for the Norman Transcript. “That’s what the Jazz thrive on. When someone makes a mistake, the Jazz just pinpoint it.”
The Thunder have been an enigma since the beginning of the season, and that will continue into the offseason as George’s free agency decision looms. There’s a pressing urgency among Oklahoma City fans, who worry that George might bolt if the postseason goes south (or that he just might bolt anyway).
Even Katz, who has covered the Thunder every step of the way, calls the team “confounding,” and the rest of the NBA might be there with him. He’s interested to see what the next steps are.
“They’re not an elite team: They could win a playoff series, but if they didn’t it wouldn’t shock me,” he said. “They kind of are what their record says they are.”