It’s been awhile. We haven’t played them... I was hurt last time, but probably December. I kind of miss them (laughs), so it’s going to be a good matchup. —Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert
SALT LAKE CITY — Making sense of all the madness regarding the Western Conference NBA standings is now over.
The playoff spots are secured and scheduled dates are set for the 16 teams competing for a title.
With that being said, it’s a fresh new start for both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz, who will meet in the first round as the fourth and fifth seed with identical 48-34 records.
Game 1 is set for Sunday at 4:30 p.m. MT on TNT.
Oklahoma City won the regular season series 3-1, but they haven’t played since Dec. 23 so these are two totally different teams since then.
“It’s been awhile,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “We haven’t played them I was hurt last time, but probably December. I kind of miss them (laughs), so it’s going to be a good matchup.”
Although the Thunder roster is more star-studded with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, don’t look for the Jazz to be intimidated by the big named guys.
They have their own brand of stars, too, in Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Gobert, who’s up for Defensive Player of the Year, with a potential Coach of the Year conducting the show from the sidelines in Quin Snyder.
The Thunder’s physicality doesn’t scare them one bit.
“We’re not going to walk in there and get punked I know that,” said Jazz sharpshooter Joe Ingles. “We’re not going to let that happen so we’ll walk in, it’s obviously going to be a physical match as all the games are and we’re going to stand our ground and play the way we want to play.”
Utah’s season has been rather interesting, as the Jazz started 19-28 after pushing through the league’s toughest December schedule with numerous injuries before closing the season on a 29-7 run.
Their 80.6 win percentage during that stretch was the league’s second-best behind the Houston Rockets who closed the year 33-5.
Throughout NBA history, only 16 teams have fallen eight games below and eight games above .500 in the same season with Utah being the most recent, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
The Jazz are just one of five squads throughout history to fall nine games below and nine games above .500 in the same season, finishing with the highest win percentage (58.5) of that rare group.
The turnaround occurred after the embarrassing 104-90 loss in Atlanta on Jan. 22 then the run started with a 98-95 overtime win against Detroit two nights later.
“In January, the expectation was that we’d be in the lottery and it’s not like people had given up on us in a way that we should be offended by that’s just what we saw, too,” Snyder said. “So, in making the playoffs in it of itself is an accomplishment but clearly you want to accomplish more.
“I don’t think you get satisfied with one and I don’t think you define yourself by that, either.”
Sure, the first round playoff series against the Jazz and Thunder is much bigger than an individual matchup between a star rookie and the reigning MVP, but boy oh boy will they be fun to watch.
Westbrook enters the postseason after becoming the first in history to average a triple-double for an entire season in back-to-back years while Mitchell has carried the Jazz to a fifth seed while breaking Damian Lillard’s NBA rookie record for 3-pointers made as the team’s scoring leader.
Westbrook is mean on the court, but he once offered rare advice to Mitchell after a December game in Utah that even shocked the Louisville product.
In four regular-season matchups against Oklahoma City, Utah won just once while being held to 43.5 percent from the field. However, the playoffs are a different story.
The good thing, though, is that players already know that. So, let’s get ready to rumble.
“It’s just a different style of basketball going into the playoffs, especially with that team (OKC),” said Jazz forward Derrick Favors. “We just know it’s something we’ve got to be prepared for, be ready for. We’ve got to be mentally strong going in and just be ready to play, but also have fun and enjoy it."