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Dodger Stadium since the start of 2015.

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    August 9, 2018 12:21 pm IST
    OKLAHOMA CITY — After losing Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics in the offseason [url=][/url] , 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 [url=][/url] , 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 [url=]Kevin Hogan Color Rush Jersey[/url] , 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.”

    LOS ANGELES — Clayton Kershaw’s comeback from a third back injury in three years will continue Thursday afternoon when he faces the Chicago Cubs in the finale of a four-game series.

    It is the last time the Dodgers and Cubs will meet in the regular season [url=]Kentavius Street Color Rush Jersey[/url] , but as the last two National League Championship Series have shown, a high-profile series in October is a possibility.

    Thursday’s afternoon game at Dodger Stadium is also the end of a jammed-packed run that will see the Cubs and Dodgers face each other for the seventh time in 10 days. Each team has beaten the other three times after the Dodgers earned a 7-5 victory Wednesday.

    Kershaw (1-4, 2.94 ERA) has already had two disabled list stints this season. He missed nearly four weeks in May with left biceps tendinitis, and after only five innings of his return from that injury, he hit the DL again with a lower back strain.

    In his return Saturday at New York against the Mets, Kershaw gave up two runs on five hits over three innings, as he was held to 55 pitches. He was supposed to have a minor league rehab start that day, but a poor weather forecast for their Triple-A Oklahoma team led the Dodgers to shift gears.

    While Kershaw is expected to get more leeway Thursday, he still figures to be on a pitch restriction that manager Dave Roberts will determine.

    “I feel 100 percent,” Kershaw told ESPN this week. “It’s just a matter of building up pitch-count wise and just make sure we’re getting to that 110- [url=][/url] , 120-pitch count limit.”

    Kershaw is 5-3 with a 2.64 ERA in nine career starts against the Cubs.

    Kershaw will square off against fellow left-hander Jose Quintana (6-6, 4.26) on Thursday. Quintana has not thrown 100 pitches in any of his last six starts and has completed six innings once in four June starts.

    Quintana has not won a start since May 31 while posting a 4.15 ERA over 21 2/3 June innings. He has not given up an earned run in two career starts against the Dodgers, but is 0-1 against Los Angeles

    The Cubs have scored 14 runs in two nights after hitting coach Chili Davis held a meeting with the offense. And while the improved offense was much needed, the Cubs are 1-1 in those two games since the meeting.

    Now comes a matchup with Kershaw, who is never a pushover, whether he is coming off an injury or not.

    “I’m still looking forward to, as we get more mature in the batter’s box, that we chase less,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I like homers just like everybody else does, but there are so many other ways to score. Industry-wide [url=][/url] , that’s probably everybody’s biggest problem. I want power and I want that little dumper to the right side.”

    For the Dodgers, it has been all about power in June. They hit three more home runs Wednesday and now have 51 in June, two short of the club record for a single month.

    Joc Pederson, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger hit home runs Wednesday. Pederson has a major league-leading 10 home runs in June, Muncy has nine and Bellinger has eight.

    The Cubs are 1-6 on their eight-game road trip to Cincinnati and L.A. and are 3-9 in regular-season games at Dodger Stadium since the start of 2015.


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