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By Bill Fitch (as told to John Hareas)


Fitch
Thanks to the new playoffs seeding rules, Utah is the No. 4 seed in this series, but Houston, thanks to its better record (52-30 to the Jazz's 51-31), has homecourt advantage. We talked to Bill Fitch for his breakdown of the Rockets-Jazz First Round series.

OVERVIEW

This series is going to be very competitive. Matchups between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds almost always put two of the best caliber teams with near equal talent together. It usually is the most competitive series you can find. The battle that they had for the home court advantage, which Houston eventually claimed, was important. A lot of people say home court is not important until the seventh game, but I have always felt that it was important for each game. If you didn’t think it was important, you didn’t reach the seventh game. This series could be one of those that goes seven games.

Another factor you have to keep in mind when talking about these two teams is injuries because they both had their fair share during the season with superstars out of the lineup. If Yao, McGrady, Boozer or Kirilenko were to go down during the series, it would hurt each ballclub.

Finally, I think there is going to be a lot of half court play, which means there is going to be a lot of rugged play. You’ve got two teams here, one team leads the league in defensive rebounding – Houston – while Utah is near the top in offensive rebounding. That calls for a lot of scrums and a lot of work for the officials underneath the basket. I think that is where you’ll see Utah try to take the game physically. I think both of these clubs are capable of keeping each other from running, but if one team is able to get a running game going, that is going to be an important surprise factor.

WHAT TO EXPECT: JAZZ

The Jazz have had great success against Houston (3-1) this season. They’re last game at Houston, they came from behind, getting most of their points inside off the boards, and pulled out an 86-83 win. I think you’ll see Fisher try to penetrate. He is capable of getting to the foul line a lot. Williams is a great point guard and the same way. The teams that have been able to penetrate and get inside and go at Houston have been able to get to the foul line and create opportunities.

On the defensive side of the ball, Utah has a problem. They can’t match up one on one with Yao. They’re going to have to do a lot of cheating. The teams that have double and triple-teamed Yao have had more success than those who have tried to play in front of him or play him legitimately with one man. Utah has a problem size-wise. I think they are going to make Yao prove that he can handle the attack underneath. They’ll try to run, beat him downcourt and set a pace for Yao where they’ll get him in to foul trouble and resting on his knees every once in a while. The big factor is whether Fisher or Williams is big enough to take McGrady when he goes to work in the post.

WHAT TO EXPECT: ROCKETS

Offensively, they’re an inside-out attack and that is the way they’ll go. They’ll bring it to Yao as much as they can. If Utah goes to the triple-teaming and so forth, you are going to see a lot of three-point shots out of the corners from Shane Battier, Rafer Alston (who set the record for most three-pointers by a Rocket), and Luther Head (a very good three-point shooter) coming off the bench. The Rockets will start off going to Yao and if it doesn’t work there, then McGrady, who is a very good driver and outside shooter, will have the green light. Provided his back holds up, you’ll see a lot of McGrady in this series.

Defensively, Yao is going to have a problem with Mehmet Okur because he is probably the best three-point shooting center in the NBA (38.4%) He’ll step out and shoot them like he’s a two guard. Yao is going to have a problem there coming out, which will also hold true for his backup, Dikembe Mutombo, when he is in there.

COACHING PHILOSOPHY:

You can talk about these coaches together because they rely a lot on their teaching of their defense and the use of disciplined offenses. You won’t see much scatterbrained play at the offensive end and you’ll see an awful lot of aggressive defensive play. With both being defensive-minded coaches, I know that they shudder at penetration. They don’t allow much penetration and they don’t allow much true one-on-one. I think their defenses will have to do a lot against the pick and roll. I think they’ll be tested there.

Both coaches are very capable of making adjustments game to game. Jerry has a lot of experience. I’ve coached two series against him, once when he was in Chicago and once when he was in Utah, and he’s very good at adjusting game to game. He’ll substitute during the game and his decisions are very good. With Jeff, you are going to see a guy who has really been hungry to get a team past the first round and who is very, very prepared. There won’t be any surprises for his team. He’ll use a very tight rotation, eight players usually. You’re going to see Jeff really, really pushing his team into an inside-out offense with Yao. They do a great job of that. His adjustments will have to be made after he sees how they hold up on the boards with Utah. There won’t be many surprises, but you’ll see some changes defensively as the series goes on.

PREDICTION:

If I had a coin, I’d flip it because this one is just too hard to pick. The home court advantage, size and talent are a little bit in Houston’s favor, so that’s the way I’m leaning.

-- Bill Fitch appears courtesy of the National Basketball Coaches Association


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