The Houston Rockets have been preaching it for weeks, that their destiny this season is in their own hands. They rolled down the stretch of the season, confident they could return to the Western Conference finals for a rematch with the reigning two-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Should they win their first-round series, that rematch could come soon enough. First, they must topple a Utah Jazz team they know well. Doing so would set up a potential West semifinals series with the No. 1-seeded Warriors, should they vanquish the LA Clippers in the first round.
That’s not necessarily the way the Rockets expected things to play out when they wrapped up their season with a chance to finish as high as the No. 2 seed. On the season's final night, the Denver Nuggets took the No. 2 seed and the Portland Trail Blazers got No. 3, leaving the Rockets to face a Jazz team that is the best defensive unit in the West.
They split the regular season series 2-2. And the Jazz will show up every bit as confident (and fearless) as the offensive juggernaut led by the reigning Kia MVP James Harden.
For all of the work Harden did dragging an injury-ravaged Rockets from Christmas to now, the bottom line is Houston didn’t exactly control its own playoff destiny after all.
Three things to watch
1. Better offense or better defense? Overall, this series pits the league’s No. 2 offensive team against the No. 2 defensive team. The Jazz tried an assortment of defenders against Harden in the 2018 West semis, with varying degrees of success. But they had absolutely no answer for Chris Paul, whose heroics lifted the Rockets out of trouble. The Jazz don’t have an individual defender for both of the Rockets’ star guards, which makes their rock-solid team defense critical in this matchup.
2. Is Derrick Favors healthy enough to be a factor in this series? As good as Rudy Gobert has been this season, it’s Favors who ranks as the league’s best rim protector. He missed four of the last five games with back spasms, forcing Jazz coach Quin Snyder to play smaller lineups that can matchup better with the Rockets offensively. Doing so, however, won’t be nearly as impactful defensively. Jae Crowder and Thabo Sefolosha simply don’t have the size to pair with Gobert to deliver the impact Favors can when healthy.
3. Are the Rockets playing with fire by putting so much on a potential rematch with the Warriors? Absolutely. Donovan Mitchell caught them looking ahead in that series last season and couldn’t be stopped (until he got injured and was lost for the final game of the series). The Rockets have had the Warriors on the brain ever since that 0-for-27 meltdown on 3-pointers in Game 7 of the 2018 West finals. But they better beware of focusing on anything other than the Jazz thistle around. The Warriors will be there in the next round. But you have to get through the Jazz to get there.
The number to know
99.0 -- The Rockets scored just 99.0 points per 100 possessions in the regular season series vs. the Jazz. That was the fewest that the league's No. 2 offense scored against any Western Conference opponent this season. The first three meetings between the two teams were three of Houston's eight worst offensive games of the season. James Harden averaged 33.5 points on an effective field goal percentage of 54 percent against the Jazz, but his assist/turnover ratio (19/24) was his worst against any opponent this season.
Harden's teammates shot 28 percent from 3-point range, with Eric Gordon making only five of his 26 attempts from beyond the arc. The three games in which the Jazz held the Rockets under a point per possession were all before Christmas, though. In the final meeting between the two teams on Feb. 2, Houston scored an efficient 125 points on 109 possessions, without either Chris Paul or Clint Capela and with Harden scoring 41 points and Gerald Green shooting 7-for-12 from 3-point range off the bench.
-- John Schuhmann
Harden and the Rockets have authored one of the great in-season revivals we’ve seen, climbing out of the West basement to challenge for a top seed in the season's final days. They’ve shown themselves capable of running anyone off the floor when they are clicking offensively. And they’re finally healthy. They have the sort of leadership in Paul and Harden that won’t allow for a breakdown now, not even against a Jazz team built to combat what they do best. It won’t be easy and Mitchell could once again use this as a platform to remind anyone who has forgotten that he’s one of the league’s most explosive scorers. But the Rockets grind this one out with more weapons than the Jazz can match. Rockets in 6.
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