SALT LAKE CITY — For the third time this season, the Utah Jazz will face an Oklahoma City Thunder team that’s playing without star point guard Russell Westbrook.
For the third time this season, that fact doesn’t make the Jazz feel any better about playing the Western Conference’s top team.
“They’ve kind of gotten used to playing around him being out, waiting for him to get back,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said, referring to the nine games Westbrook’s missed this season and his absence down the stretch last year. “It’s still a very deep ballclub.”
Two different interviews from Monday’s practice give you an idea of just how loaded the 27-7 Thunder are.
Corbin credited Scott Brooks’ squad for having players who’ve seized extra opportunities. He then rattled off a list of players the Jazz will have to worry about, including improved guards Thabo Sefolosha, Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson.
Moments later, Jazz forward Marvin Williams specifically mentioned defensive brutes Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
And, yes, they both began their lists with another well-known Thunder player.
But, no, it wasn’t Derek Fisher.
“They still have (Kevin) Durant out there,” Corbin said.
“They’re still a great team,” Williams said. “They’ve got guys who are capable of stepping in and getting the job done. They’ve been playing really well all year. Obviously, Durant.”
Durant, who’s only 25 years old by the way, is averaging 29.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists this season.
Durant began the season with a 42-point outburst at EnergySolutions Arena, helping the Thunder hold off a gutsy effort by the outmanned Jazz on Oct. 30 in a 101-98 win.
The versatile 6-9 small forward had a quiet night of just 19 points in 26 minutes during OKC’s 95-73 blowout win over Utah at home in November.
In Westbrook’s absence, Jackson, a third-year pro, has taken over ballhandling duties. The 2011 first-round pick has averaged 12 points, five assists and 3.5 steals in two victories against the Jazz.
“Jackson’s improved his effectiveness on the floor,” Corbin said.
Jackson, who’ll be pitted against reigning Western Conference Rookie of the Month Trey Burke, told the team’s website that he’s embracing the opportunity to get starter’s minutes with Westbrook sidelined.
"Pressure bursts pipes or makes diamonds. I'm cool with it,” Jackson said. “I put a lot on myself and I expect big things from myself."
The Jazz (11-25) have lost four consecutive to the Thunder, who’ve taken 10 of the last 12 meetings.
Utah comes into this contest fresh, having had three days of rest and practice since last playing Friday in Los Angeles.
“We’ve reinforced some things that we’ve had some slippage on and to build on some things that we have some success at,” Corbin said. “We’ve had so many games so early that now having some time off and practice will help.”
The biggest emphasis during the past two days of practice was on defense. Corbin said the Jazz needed repetitions to get sharper on rotations and weak-side help. It’s a tricky balance, he added, because sometimes you have to get to the double team quickly to be more effective against big guys who can move. Other times, Corbin wants his players to delay their help to avoid leaving good shooters open on the weak side of action.
Williams is hoping the downtime — only the third time this season the Jazz have had more than two consecutive days off — will help the team continue its improved play. Utah has gone 5-4 since losing back-to-back games to the 2013 NBA Finals teams (Spurs and Heat).
“It’s kind of one those things you don’t know if it’s going to help you or hurt you to have the time off,” Williams said. “Obviously we have been playing much better. Games are always going to be more fun when you are in a rhythm as a team and individually, but at the same time, it has been a grind for us early.”
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