Thunder vs. Jazz: A first-round preview?

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

If the playoffs began today, Oklahoma City and Utah would be slated to meet in a fascinating contrast of styles.

With the All-Star break only a few days away, looking ahead to April and May is no longer a fool's errand. So while the top and the bottom of the playoff standings out West are still in flux, it's very conceivable that the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz, currently the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds, end up meeting in a first-round playoff series.

In many ways, Utah is a team built in Oklahoma City's image, a small-market franchise determined to build through the draft and avoid the pitfalls of free agency. The difference is that while the Thunder are built from the outside-in, the Jazz have gambled on the reverse, selecting two 6'10-plus big men in the top three of the draft in order to build a team from the inside-out.

Oklahoma City, which comes into Tuesday's game on a 4-game winning streak, has the NBA's best point differential at plus-9.6. For a Utah team short on perimeter defenders, figuring out some way to slow down the combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be the key to the game. In their 106-98 victory over the Jazz in November, the two combined for 48 points and 11 assists on 45 percent shooting.

Utah, meanwhile, has struggled to find consistency thanks to an imbalanced line-up that squeezes the playing time of their four most productive players, all big men. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are supposed to be the future of the franchise, but they've been blocked by the presence of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both still playing at near All-Star levels.

SLC Dunk, SB Nation's Jazz blog, has a look at some of the possible trade rumors involving Utah.

But while the logjam upfront may not be sustainable in the long-term, it does give the Jazz a distinct advantage in terms of front-court depth. As a result, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins will likely need to shoulder a bigger burden for the Thunder, who have been more dangerous this season going small with Durant at the 4.

Pace, more than anything else, may be the story of the game on Tuesday. Utah doesn't have the firepower to keep up if the game becomes a track meet, but if they can turn it into a bruising war of attrition in the paint, they might have a chance to pull off the upset. They'll be helped by a raucous home crowd in Salt Lake City, one of the toughest arenas in the NBA.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma City is a solid 5.5 point road favorite for the 9 p.m. ET game.

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