OKLAHOMA CITY -- After losing Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics in the offseason, it looked like it would be a long shot for the Utah Jazz to make the playoffs.
But after a rough start, the Jazz won 29 of 34 games before losing their regular-season finale to drop to the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
They'll open the playoffs Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that looked like a lock to not only make the playoffs but compete atop the conference. But the Thunder didn't solidify their place in the playoffs until a win in the next-to-last game of the season.
The series is one of the more intriguing first-round matchups, with Utah's 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert providing a rim-protecting presence to combat Thunder superstar point guard Russell Westbrook.
Gobert has also taken over as a leader after the departure of Hayward.
That included a strong statement after the Jazz dropped a game in Atlanta in late January to fall nine games below .500. At the time, Gobert tweeted, "We will be fine."
"It's only brighter from that point," Gobert told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I looked at our team, our organization, and I thought, 'Why not turn things around?' We were 19-28, but we had everything in our hands. We knew we were going to turn."
That turnaround hinged in large part on Utah's defense, which figures to play a big part in the series as Oklahoma City's pick-and-roll combo of Westbrook and center Steven Adams will be tested and Paul George plays in his first postseason with the Thunder.
"As the playoffs go, the game slows down some, teams are really conscientious of getting back in transition," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "You're always trying to find ways to carve out a way to get some easy baskets, whether it's offensive rebounds, free throws, backdoor cuts.
"But sometimes up against the clock, you need guys that can generate offense for your team, or who can make a play, make a shot or make a play for somebody else."
Oklahoma City won the regular-season series 3-1, but the Thunder had defensive stopper Andre Roberson available for all four of those games. Roberson suffered a season-ending injury in late January, eventually opening the door for Oklahoma City to sign Corey Brewer.
George figures to draw perhaps the most important defensive assignment, taking over for Roberson in guarding Jazz rookie guard Donovan Mitchell.
"I'm used to these matchups," George said. "I'm used to playing against the best offensive guy in these moments. That'll be my role. Not to say Corey won't guard (Mitchell), but that'll definitely be my role, especially late in games."
George guarded Mitchell on only 27 possessions during the four regular-season meetings, going 4 of 7 from the floor. Roberson guarded Mitchell for 78 possessions.
"He's a really good attacking guard in the open floor and in transition," Donovan said of Mitchell. "Obviously with the way he can shoot it, I think his strength and physicality. He does a lot of different things for them in transition and in half court while also creating for himself."