We've got to get sharper on the offensive end against a good defensive ballclub. We've got to make sure we get back in transition and stop their early transition baskets. —Tyrone Corbin, Utah coach
SALT LAKE CITY — Sure, over the past few seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been regarded as one of the best teams in the NBA.
And, as for the Utah Jazz? Well, OK, they're not.
But the two teams have something very much in common these days — yes, they're each missing their starting point guard.
That's right, the Thunder are currently without the lightning-quick guy who makes ’em go, Russell Westbrook, and the Jazz are missing Trey Burke, the young man who's projected to be their franchise point guard of the future.
All right, so maybe that's the last time you'll see the names of Westbrook and Burke mentioned in the same sentence — unless it's something along the lines of "Trey Burke had an awfully tough time trying to defend Russell Westbrook."
After all, Westbrook is a three-time NBA All-Star who averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game last season. With his incredible quickness, athleticism and all-around ability, he is regarded as one of the elite players in the entire league.
And Burke is an NBA rookie who's still hoping to simply prove himself.
Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee in last season's playoffs. And without him, the Thunder — who reached the NBA Finals in 2012 and won 60 games last season to earn the No. 1 seed in the West — were doomed, eventually losing to Memphis in the Western Conference semifinals.
Westbrook, who before his unfortunate injury had started every game in his five-year NBA career, had to have a second surgery on his knee when a loose stitch from the first surgery caused swelling in his knee.
He's expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season, and his spot in Oklahoma City's starting lineup has been filled by point guard Reggie Jackson — which is a great name for someone who's playing professional sports in October. However, he's not related to the Major League Baseball legend nicknamed "Mr. October" in his heyday with the New York Yankees.
Burke, meanwhile, broke the index finger on his right hand in Utah's preseason loss to the Los Angeles Clippers a little more than a week ago. He could be sidelined for as long as 12 weeks, although Burke insists he'll be back in the Jazz lineup much sooner than that.
The Jazz visit Oklahoma City Sunday evening for a preseason game against the Thunder, who will also be Utah's opponent when the two teams tangle in the regular-season opener on Oct. 30 at EnergySolutions Arena.
Utah coach Tyrone Corbin, whose team is 1-3 in the exhibition season after dropping its last three preseason contests, was asked what he hopes to see the Jazz do in tonight's 5 p.m. matchup with three-time NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant and the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
"Compete," he said adamantly, "and work on the things that we've worked on on the offensive end. We've got to get sharper on the offensive end against a good defensive ballclub. We've got to make sure we get back in transition and stop their early transition baskets.
"We've got to know in a scorer like Durant how we have to play him, not just (having) a guy on Durant but the team has to be aware where he is, not let guys set screens so the guy that's guarding him can stay close to him and challenge his shots. Knowing we want to stay between him and the basket, but be closer to him and make him put it on the floor at times instead of letting him get his feet set for shots.
"There'll be a lot of different growing things that we need to see in this game, plus continue to grow as a group," Corbin said.
And despite Westbrook's absence, Corbin still considers Oklahoma City one of the league's top teams — one which will be strengthened considerably when Westbrook makes his expected return in December.
"They have got a really good ballclub, man, and they're gonna be one of the teams that's probably gonna be there at the end," the Jazz coach said. "Westbrook is hurt, so that's taken a little bit of their steam out for a little while from everybody else.
"So we understand how good they are and now we have to compete, and they're gonna be one of the teams in the West that has a chance at the end. So we want to make sure that we get some lessons from them, that we compete against them, and give them a good measurement for where we are growing as a young group."
Like the Jazz, the Thunder are also coming off a preseason setback from a few days ago, as they dropped a 105-102 decision to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday. Durant scored 25 points in that defeat, and Jackson had 12 points and nine assists.
“It’s a learning experience and we’ll get better from it,” Durant said in a story by Thunder writer Nick Gallo. “That’s what the preseason is for, for those guys to just learn. Not just them but the veterans as well to learn more and more about their teammates and more about the game. We have to know the game and we’re just looking forward to another chance at getting better.”
That's something the Jazz hope to do, too, as the start of the regular season quickly approaches — even if, for the time being, they have to do it without the guy who was gonna be their starting point guard.
And that's something Durant and the Thunder can certainly appreciate, too.