OKLAHOMA CITY — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 116-108 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from KSL.com's Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz lose because of Paul George
That's a little bit reductive, but it's true: because of Paul George's brilliance, the Jazz lost. George scored 36 points on 13-20 shooting, including 8-for-11 from the 3-point line. Any time a player has that good of a shooting night against you, that efficient of a performance, it's going to be hard to win.
Early, George was getting his threes from pulling up in pick and roll, even as the Jazz defenders trailed him off of screens (in part, to prevent those kind of looks). There are only a few players who can regularly hit shots like this, players like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry, and maybe it's fair to add George to that list after tonight's performance. On this one, he's even trying to get the whistle.
Then, the threes were mostly about George just pulling up over Jazz defenders in isolation situations. George hit pullups over Donovan Mitchell, Royce O'Neale, and even the length of Rudy Gobert. He was just on fire.
So the Jazz, facing death by George three, decided to change the coverage, putting more pressure on George on the ball to try to get the ball out of his hands. Then, and to his credit, George just made the right plays. Here, he gets trapped, so finds the rolling Jerami Grant, who then finds the open Alex Abrines in the corner. Both were great plays, and it is meaningful that the Thunder (or George, at least) chose to pass the ball even when the one-on-one ball was also working.
"When they put two on the ball, you have to move it," George explained after the game. "You have to trust your teammates."
But that's not the only way George changed the game. Surprisingly, he played nearly the whole contest defending Joe Ingles, and it got the Jazz out of their ball-movement style of offense. So often, they rely on Ingles to make plays on the offensive end through dribble handoffs, but George blew those plays up by holding Ingles, getting in between the handoffs, and never letting Ingles have an advantage.
Without that advantage, the Jazz's offense sputtered early. They actually did get it going in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late.
If George is this good in every game in this series, the Jazz will lose it. That's possible, George has some incredible performances on his playoff resumé. But you would naturally expect the shooting to slow down at least a little.
2. Donovan Mitchell's playoff debut
There were questions about how Mitchell would respond to the playoff physicality and scouting. After all, in maybe the Jazz's most playoff-esque atmosphere before Sunday, Mitchell struggled, going 6-23 against Portland on the road in the season's final game.
But Mitchell responded to that performance with the right attitude.
“I think the biggest thing with me is just staying under control. Staying relaxed, not really trying to say 'All right it’s playoff time, let’s turn it up more,'" Mitchell said. "I think that’s when I start to lose myself and play outside my game."
Mitchell looked cool as a cucumber in Game 1 against the Thunder. He led the Jazz in scoring with 27 points, on 11-22 shooting, and even added 10 rebounds, three assists, and two steals. He only turned the ball over once. And of course, he showed off his other-worldly scoring ability with some jaw-dropping plays.
It all looked like it might be coming to a halt, though. After the third quarter, Mitchell limped off the court with an apparent foot injury after OKC's Corey Brewer landed on his foot. The Jazz training staff quickly took X-rays, and determined that it wasn't a break, that it was only "left foot soreness." Mitchell returned and subbed himself into the game.
But Mitchell wasn't himself, he was limping. So Snyder took him back out. That's when Mitchell begged back into the game, telling his bench that he was fine:
Mitchell then assisted on a Favors layup on the next play, then hit two consecutive baskets at the rim. Oklahoma City was also scoring, so the Jazz weren't getting any closer, and so Snyder decided to put in the whole bench at the next timeout.
Mitchell will undergo an MRI, but he didn't look to be limping after the game.
"I feel fine," Mitchell said. "I just stubbed my toe. Nothing major." I'm not sure it's that minor, but Mitchell's confidence on the issue is reassuring.
It's good, too: the Jazz didn't need another one of their stars to be injured in Game 1 of the playoffs, as happened to Gobert last year. Mitchell showed up when called upon in Game 1, and we'll see if he can keep the good play rolling in Game 2.
3. Can Jazz improve in transition and on putbacks?
One way you can break down offensive possessions is like this: they either are coming in the half court, after offensive rebounds, or in transition.
The Jazz actually outscored the Thunder on their half-court possessions tonight. The Jazz scored 96 points per 100 possessions on those opportunities, and the Thunder only scored 90 points per 100. That's a great sign for the Jazz.
Nor did the Jazz kill themselves by giving the Thunder too many turnovers or offensive rebounds. The Thunder only ended up nine offensive rebounds, they average 12.5 per game this season. And they only forced 14 Utah turnovers, the Thunder usually force 16 turnovers per game.
But what really hurt the Jazz was how the Thunder took advantage of those situations. Despite only having nine offensive rebounds, OKC scored 19 second-chance points. That's obviously way too many, and the Jazz will need to do a better job of staying focused if the ball doesn't end up in their hands, maybe even helping down low to prevent those kinds of putbacks.
The Thunder also did a nice job of manufacturing transition opportunities out of rebounds, not just turnovers. When the Jazz missed a shot and the Thunder got a rebound, the Thunder ended the next possession in transition 40 percent of the time, according to Cleaning the Glass. And because they're the Thunder, they scored efficiently on those possessions, with an offensive rating of 128.
For a team that prides itself on transition defense, the Jazz will need to be tighter at preventing those looks for OKC in Game 2, even if they are able to take care of the ball on offense. If the Jazz dictate this series so that it's a half-court, one shot and out kind of contest, they should have the advantage.
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