The last place Oklahoma City Thunder hosts fourth-place Utah tonight at 7 p.m. as both teams try to escape the Northwest Division cellar.
Seriously though, when did the Northwest become the most competitive division in the NBA? The 10-12 Thunder are just 2.5 games behind co-leaders Portland and Denver and the red-hot Jazz are just a half game out of first place at 13-11.
The Northwest is the toughest division in the NBA. Who'd have thought? pic.twitter.com/AukBJY3Uf8— Ben Smith (@bjaminsmith) December 5, 2017
The Northwest is the toughest division in the NBA. Who'd have thought? pic.twitter.com/AukBJY3Uf8
The Thunder got good results in the first two “revenge games” on this three-game homestand, featuring opponents OKC lost to earlier in the season. Utah has won six-straight despite missing star center Rudy Gobert for all but 21 minutes of this run.
The Jazz has a 24-point average margin-of-victory during the win streak. And, Utah is coming off its biggest win of the season – a 116-69 obliteration of Washington where Gobert and Co. held the Wizards to 23 of 80 shooting.
Utah has as balanced a roster as one can find in the league. Gobert is the centerpiece – averaging 13.2 points and 10.5 rebounds – but five others join him in double figures and that doesn’t include dangerous reserve Alec Buks who is averaging 9.7 per game.
Perhaps the headline of the first quarter of the season in Utah has been the emergence of rookie guard Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell started but was barely a factor in the first meeting, a 96-87 Jazz win on Oct. 21. Over the past month, the 21-year-old out of Louisville is averaging 19.6 points per game and has helped Jazz fans ease the pain of losing Gordon Hayward in free agency this offseason.
Tonight’s matchup pits two of the top four defensive lineups with the Jazz giving up 98.7 ppg and the Thunder surrendering 99.0 per contest. Despite adding a pair of All-Stars, OKC is scoring 4.5 points per game less this season compared to last. And Utah, despite losing Hayward’s team-leading 21.9 per game, is up 3.0 points year-to-year.
Oklahoma City goes on the road to Brooklyn on Thursday, a 9 p.m. CT tip.