Houston's depth and star power should send them through to Round 2
Previewing the Rockets and Jazz First Round Match up
For the second year in a row, the Rockets and the Jazz will meet in the Western Conference playoffs. Although the year has changed and both rosters are a little bit different, I don't really see anything that leads me to believe that the results will be any different. The Rockets are not a good matchup for the Jazz because everything that they do offensively and defensively will be tested by James Harden and company. Utah exploits their opponent's tendencies and shortcomings, turning them into easy baskets, good scoring chances and lots and lots of transition opportunities. Quin Snyder's team is the epitome of the word "team;" they play together, share the ball and help the helper with timely rotations and switches. The problem with trying to do all those things and execute in this series is, the Rockets do most of those things better than the Jazz do. Here are the keys to the series as we prepare for Game 1.
The Jazz is an above average defensive team that preys on turnovers and uses every live ball giveaway to get out in transition and create easy scoring opportunities. That works against the majority of the squads in the NBA but not so much against the Rockets. If Houston keeps their turnovers down, it becomes a double whammy for the Jazz. The Rockets end up with more shots while limiting Utah's fast break opportunities. The Jazz are young and athletic and they have the premiere defensive big man in the game patrolling the paint, Rudy Gobert. The "Stifle Tower" controls the lane and can block and alter most shots within 7 feet of the basket, while also being fully capable of filling the lane after live ball turnovers and missed shots.
The reason he isn't quite as effective or successful against Houston is the duo of Clint Capella and James Harden who attack defending big men like Gobert by getting into the teeth of the defense and forcing them to react quickly and decide whether to collapse on Harden or show and then retreat to prevent a lob to Capella. The way the Beard and Chris Paul push the issue in the lane and their ability to make the proper decision keeps the defense on their heels. The chemistry between the dynamic duo and their big men, Capella, Kenneth Faried, and even Nene, has been perfected over the course of an 82 game regular season schedule and when they are in attack mode they are really hard to stop. Utah is a good defensive team but Houston is an even better team offensively.
Speaking of defense, look for the Jazz to attempt to do what no team has been able to accomplish this season and take the ball out of Harden's hands. Expect to see plenty of double-teams on the reigning MVP, hoping to get the ball out of his hands and forcing other players to beat them. They will also undoubtedly shade his left hand, hoping to make him uncomfortable and causing him to go right, which he does not prefer to do. They will undoubtedly throw different looks at Harden from picking him up in the backcourt to get the ball out of his hands, to allowing him to dribble the shot clock down in space at the top of the key only to rush extra help defenders at him late in the possession forcing a rushed shot or turnover.
That's where Chris Paul comes in. He is like a coach on the floor and is extremely comfortable taking the ball from Harden to create offense for himself and for others. Paul will exploit the extra defenders helping on Harden by finding the open man for open shots as well as using the numbers in his favor to penetrate, opening up multiple scoring opportunities.
Finally, look for the Rockets depth and overall talent to give them the upper hand in the series. Gobert has a slight advantage over Capella but Harden gets the nod over talented second-year guard Donovan Mitchell. Paul may have lost a step, but he is still more effective and talented than Ricky Rubio. The rest of Utah's rotation is filled with hit or miss game talent that could just as easily give them a goose egg as they could double figures. Jo Ingles and Kyle Korver are exceptional shooters but are not fleet of foot and have trouble with athletic wing defenders like the Rockets possess. Dereck Favors, Jay Crowder, and Ekpe Udoh are reserve post players that have experience but have consistently underachieved over their veteran careers. Look for Austin Rivers and Danuel House jr. to give Korver and Ingles fits on the perimeter, while Faried and PJ Tucker will run Favors, Crowder and Udoh into the ground with their activity on both ends and ability to run the floor relentlessly. The real "X" factor in my mind is Eric Gordon. If he is making shots, specifically 3's, as well as penetrating and getting to the rim, then the Rockets are going to be tough to beat. When Gordon is scoring in bunches and making his shots Houston can play with anybody, that includes the Jazz as well as the Warriors and whoever comes out of the East.
With all that said, I actually believe the end result will mirror the semi-final matchup of last year and the Rockets will win in five games. It's a different year but the main characters remain the same and that suits Houston perfectly fine. They are deeper, have more star power and can defend the pick and roll that is a staple of the Utah offense. Mitchell will be a handful but so will Harden, and CP3 has a big advantage over whoever the Jazz chose to put on him. As long as the Rockets don't have a drought from distance similar to the catastrophic collapse in game 7 against the Warriors, look for the Rockets to roll and advance to the semi-finals and a re-match with Golden State.