The Utah Jazz are projected by most to finish at or near the bottom of the Western Conference standings this season. But the Oklahoma City Thunder isn't taking its season-opening opponent lightly.
“I think we all are excited to play against somebody other than each other,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I think it's a great opportunity for us to start the season. We know what we have to do. We know some of the important things that we want to get accomplished, that is just continue to play hard basketball, tough basketball.”
Utah lost anchors Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap this summer, but Brooks said the Jazz will again be a gritty team, led by big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
“They've changed their personnel, but one of the things they do, their staple, is they play hard,” Brooks said. “They play a physical style of basketball. They have two low-post scorers who can offensive rebound and score at the block. We got to play defense, and we know when you're up there you always play in front of a great crowd.”
Trey Burke, college basketball's reigning National Player of the Year and the ninth overall pick, is sidelined for at least a month with a broken right index finger. Without him, the Jazz will rely on Favors and Kanter but also fourth-year forward Gordon Hayward, who averaged 16.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and three assists against the Thunder last season.
“Gordon plays hard,” Brooks said. “That guy has really improved a lot the last three years. He makes shots. He puts the ball on the floor. He takes it from basket to basket.”
FREE-THROW SHOOTING NOT A CONCERN
The Thunder lost two of the league's premier free-throw shooters in each of the last two seasons, trading James Harden to Houston and losing Kevin Martin to Minnesota.
One would think their successive departures would negatively affect the Thunder's effectiveness from the foul line. Brooks, though, said he doesn't see that being the case.
“Martin, he (took), I think, three (per game),” Brooks said. “He's been a high free-throw shooter his entire career. But for us, he wasn't. That wasn't part of his offense. But we still want to get to the free-throw line. We feel we should be able to get there 27 to 30 times.”
It's not just Martin's attempts that helped OKC. It was more his connection rate. Martin made 89 percent of his free throws, which ranked second behind Durant among Thunder players with at least 50 attempts, and helped OKC shoot a league-leading 82.8 percent last season.
In fact, the Thunder led the league in free-throw percentage in each of the past three seasons, shooting 80.6 percent in 2011-12 and 82.3 percent in 2010-11. OKC ranked second in 2009-10, shooting 80.5 percent from the foul line.
“We definitely are an attack team,” Brooks said. “We want to get to the free-throw line. We know when we get there we're going to make them.”
WHAT IS RYAN GOMES' ROLE?
Forward Ryan Gomes earned a spot on the Thunder roster but remains a mystery to most in Oklahoma. He appeared in only one preseason game, playing just 12 first-half minutes.
But Brooks expressed confidence and a comfort level with the seven-year veteran.
“He's a guy that we like. I know what he does. I've seen him for years,” Brooks said. “The minutes are probably going to fluctuate for a lot of guys on our roster. But it's the professionalism that we have to have out of Ryan, and he's been on that aspect of the game at a high level.”
Serge Ibaka will answer fans' questions before the Thunder's season opener Wednesday.
Fans on Monday were encouraged to ask Ibaka questions on the social networking site Twitter with the hashtag #iblogga.