Numerous times have I said that the fate of the Oklahoma City Thunder depends entirely on how they play defense. Head coach Billy Donovan alluded to that on many occasions, and after OKC’s impressive win over the Utah Jazz, it appears as if the Thunder as a team believe that too.
OKC’s 110-94 win was more impressive than that 16-point deficit depicts. They led by as many as 29 points, and they held a 20-plus-point lead through a large portion of it. They scored 110 points but had no 20-point scorers. They held Utah to 94 points, and their “duo” of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert only combined for 23 points.
What the Thunder did was take away what the Jazz typically do exceptionally well. Mitchell was 0-4 from beyond the perimeter, 1-4 from mid-range, and 4-7 from inside the paint. All of Gobert’s 10 points came from around the basket. Utah isn’t a perimeter team. Their stars (Mitchell and Gobert) thrive around the basket and Billy Donovan game-planned against that to perfection in OKC’s first official game back.
Because of their stingy defense, OKC was able to capitalize on the opposite end of the floor. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was OKC’s leading performer, finishing with 19 points, six assists, and three steals. Steven Adams looked strong and dominant again, putting up a solid stat line of 16 points, 11 rebounds and two steals. Chris Paul was on-brand with 18 points, seven assists, seven rebounds and two steals. Shai, CP3, and Luguentz Dort combined for seven steals.
“I liked it because you don’t know what to expect,” Paul said of the fast start. “We played three scrimmage games, they were sort of up and down. I hadn’t practiced in the past I don’t know how many days, and so you’re just unsure.”
At 35 years old, I expected Paul to be healthy and rejuvenated…but a bit rusty. That just wasn’t the case. Statistically, Paul was the star for the Thunder. He was spot-on with his midrange jumpers and accurate from three. He shot an efficient 7-11 for the game and distributed the ball as he’s been doing for more than a decade.
Interesting statistic: The Thunder outscored Utah by 27 points when Paul was playing.
Who knows what the teams ahead of the Thunder will do, but when it comes to that middle-of-the-road playoff pack, the Thunder stack up nicely. When thinking of that group of teams (Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Jazz), the Thunder have the edge because of what we saw today.