Oklahoma City counting on thunderous defense vs. Jazz
SALT LAKE CITY — When Oklahoma City acquired Carmelo Anthony and Paul George over the summer, it seemed like a sure sign that the Thunder would spend all season throttling teams with offense.
Anthony, George and Russell Westbrook combined for 5,992 points last season — the most of any current set of three teammates in the NBA this year. Explosive offense isn’t the only weapon in the Thunder arsenal.
Oklahoma City (17-15) is also finding a way to impose its will on defense. That’s a wrinkle Utah will be forced to deal with for the second time this week when the Jazz host the Thunder on Saturday.
“I definitely wanted to bring defense here,” George said following Thursday’s practice, while noting he had been part of several strong defensive teams at Indiana. “I know what level you need to play at and what you need to bring from a player and a team standpoint. And this team has all the characteristics that those teams have. So we’re right on schedule where we need to be defensively.”
Utah definitely wouldn’t argue with George’s conclusion. Oklahoma City held the Jazz to a season-low nine first quarter points in a 107-79 win on Wednesday. The Thunder forced 19 turnovers and scored 28 points off those miscues. They limited Utah to just 36 percent shooting from the field.
It built on what Oklahoma City previously accomplished in a 100-94 win over the Jazz on Dec. 5. The Thunder rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter by holding Utah to a season-low 14 fourth-quarter points. Once again, in that game, they forced the Jazz into committing a flurry of turnovers. Utah finished with 18 turnovers leading to 18 points for Oklahoma City.
Heading into Friday’s 120-117 win over Atlanta, the Thunder led the NBA in steals per game (10.0) and opponent turnovers per game (17.7) while possessing the top defensive rating (100.8).
Defensive success has made basketball fun again after a tough start to the season and that’s important to Oklahoma City as it deals with massive hype surrounding the team.
“You’ve gotta have fun and embrace the game,” Westbrook said on Wednesday. “You don’t take it for granted. Go out and compete and have fun at the same time. It’s enjoyable. You have to enjoy it.”
Derailing a hot Oklahoma City team won’t be easy for Utah. The Jazz scored a 100-89 upset win over San Antonio, but have still lost seven of their last nine. Injuries have made it tougher for Utah to get back on track.
Rudy Gobert will likely remain out with a PCL sprain and bone bruise in his knee through the end of the month. Donovan Mitchell has missed two straight games with a big toe contusion. Backup point guard Raul Neto has been sidelined for six games with a concussion. Derrick Favors also missed a pair of games with a concussion before returning to action on Wednesday.
Utah (15-18) hasn’t given up amid all the attrition from injuries.
“We’re fighters,” guard Rodney Hood said. “We are going to play hard regardless of who’s out there. Sometimes we come out short-handed, but every single night we go out and compete.”
Hood took it upon his shoulders to give the Jazz an extra spark against the Spurs. He scored 29 points and made several critical baskets after San Antonio cut Utah’s lead to a single point in the fourth quarter.
Since returning from an ankle injury, Hood has averaged 19.2 points in six games. He is shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 48.8 percent from the perimeter in that stretch.
What Hood did in the fourth quarter against the Spurs, according to Jazz coach Quin Snyder, offers a snapshot of his ability to rise to the occasion and be aggressive on offense when Utah needs it.
“Rodney’s capable of doing that,” Snyder said. “He’s an explosive offensive player. He knew that we needed that (Thursday night) and we really responded.”