Maybe there is reason for Thunder fans to have their fingers crossed for a first-round matchup with Utah. While players and coaches downplay the significance of the Thunder’s 3-0 record against the Jazz going into tonight’s series finale at Utah, there is mounting evidence that Oklahoma City’s success against Utah could make the Jazz a favorable foe in the postseason. The Western Conference playoff picture remains as murky as ever with Dallas, Denver, Utah and Phoenix all deadlocked at 50-27. And the currently sixth-seeded Thunder, shocking as it might seem, still has a chance to climb as high as the No. 2 seed or fall to the eighth spot. Listen to the Thunder, though, and it seems as if no one wants to risk adding bulletin-board material to the Jazz’s locker room by overstating this year’s success against Utah. "We’ve just been blessed and fortunate to win three games against them,” said forward Jeff Green. "Once the playoffs start, those games won’t matter. No matter how many times we beat them in the regular season, if we see them in the playoffs it’s going to be a totally different story.” Or will it? Golden State’s first-round win over Dallas in the first round of the 2007 playoffs serves as the most recent example of how regular season success can carry over. The Warriors, despite being the No. 8 seed, upset No. 1-seeded Dallas in six games after sweeping the Mavs 3-0 in the regular-season series. And one look at the Thunder’s performance against the Jazz indicates that none of this year’s wins were a fluke. Against Utah, the Thunder has averaged 103.3 points, ranking ninth among any opponent this season and first among opponents sporting winning records. The Thunder’s 52 percent shooting against Utah is OKC’s most efficient shooting against any team. The Thunder’s 23.7 assists per game against Utah rank as the third most against any opponent. Utah has scored just 97 points per game against the Thunder, one of only nine teams that have held the Jazz to less than a 100-point average. And OKC ranks fourth on that list, tied with New Orleans and trailing the Los Angeles Lakers (88.0), Atlanta (91.5) and Miami (94.0). Utah’s 46.7 percent shooting against the Thunder also is one of its lowest outputs against any team, far lower than the second-ranked 49.1 percent field goal shooting Utah averages. "We match up with them well,” said Kevin Durant. "They have a big point guard. We have a big point guard. Jeff and Carlos Boozer go at it a lot. And we have a shooting center in Nenad just like they do in Okur. Down the line, it’s even. Andrei Kirilenko is long an athletic. I’m long and athletic, too. So it’s an even matchup all the way down.” The Thunder also has had success slowing down Jazz point guard Deron Williams by assigning Thabo Sefolosha onto him. And if it comes down to bench play, Oklahoma City, with James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Eric Maynor, figures to have the edge on Utah’s Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price. Perhaps the most significant factor, however, is the success Durant has had against Utah. He’s averaged 31.3 points on 54.1 percent shooting. Those figures trail only his 37-point average on 56.1 percent shooting against Phoenix among the aforementioned four teams the Thunder is most likely to meet in the first round. "It’s a different season. That’s going to be over with,” Durant said. "I think we have confidence no matter who we play. We have a chance, no matter who we match up against, to go in there and win.” Thunder coach Scott Brooks warns the regular season series has no bearing on tonight’s game and added the Jazz will "embarrass you” if the Thunder doesn’t play hard and match their physicality. "The most important thing in basketball is effort and bringing that energy, whether it’s a regular season game or a playoff game,” said Brooks. "It’s important that we have that energy and effort and we usually have it. I don’t see anything changing.”
Thunder at Jazz→When: 8 tonight →Where: Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City →TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722). →Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, 640-AM.