Houston's depth and star power should send them through to Round 2

Previewing the Rockets and Jazz First Round Match up

James Harden averaged 37 points per game last week. Houston Rockets/Facebook

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.

media.defense.gov

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.

Rockets Clint Capela Houston Rockets/Facebook

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.

Chris Paul Rockets.com

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.

Eric Gordon Jonathan Daniel

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.

James Harden and Chris Paul Houston Rockets/Facebook

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.

It started out easily enough. Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out support for protestors in Hong Kong, a since-deleted missive that stated "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."

The reaction was immediate. Owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted out his own response: "Listen....@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://twitter.com/dmorey/status/1180312072027947008"

James Harden apologized. The NBA apologized in its own statement, saying Morey's comments "have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."

Their statement added:

"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together."

Morey himself had to dial it back. In a two part tweet, he said: "I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives. I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA."

That, of course, would not be the end of it.

Swift response

The Rockets immediately lost Chinese sponsors. Their games have been dropped from Chinese TV. The Chinese consulate in Houston weighed in. "We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact,'' the office said in a statement.

Even more backlash

After the NBA apologized, the issue got political in the U.S. It even managed to unite politicians on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Republican Ted Cruz tweeted out this:

"As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating."

Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke, who ran against Cruz for senator in Texas, tweeted: "The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment."

Imagine an issue where these two are on the same side.

Political firestorm

Nets owner Joseph Tsai ripped into Morey as well. "When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn't expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened." He said expressing one's opinion "is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China. The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country's sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable."

The Chinese market is very important to the NBA and its ownership, as the league is heavily invested. China pulling out of the league would be damaging. The NBA knows this. But many see the league's backtracking as a way to preserve the business relationship, a move that seems to contradict most of the league's political stances in the United States, hence the responses from U.S. politicians.

The Chinese government has been very sensitive to the outside interpretations of the protests, and their response to this is in no small part due to that.

What does it all mean?

There are many on the Chinese side calling for Morey to be fired in order to do business with the Rockets again. This won't happen; as much as Fertitta was displeased with the tweet, he is a big Morey supporter. And to fire him would likely cause a serious backlash in Houston, where Rockets fans revere Morey. It would also give the impression that he is siding with Chinese interests over the United States, fair or not. Fertitta is too smart for that. Morey in no way intended to cause such a firestorm. Had he known the response, he would have never tweeted that out.

The problem is, the freedoms we enjoy in the United States do not translate to other countries, especially China, where social media and political views are restricted.

Now what?

Realistically, sports fans - especially the ones in Houston - don't care about any of this. It will only matter to them if Morey were fired, which is not going to happen. Fans care more about the Astros playoffs, Texans with a big win, and how the Rockets will look with Russell Westbrook and and James Harden. The problem is the story has gotten outside the realm of sports, with politicians weighing in and CNN reporting on it. When that happens, hyperbole and political stances become the order of the day. You would hope it would blow over, but time will tell.

One thing is for sure: Morey did not want this. Fertitta and the NBA did not want it. But it has become a firestorm, one that has a lot of levels.

It also goes to one of the dangers of social media; a high-profile person might have a personal Twitter account, but you also represent your organization, and your tweets reflect on them. It also shows the danger of "bumper sticker" tweets, where complicated issues are often foolishly reduced to buzz words. If there is a mistake here, it's that Morey did not recognize he represents the Rockets and NBA. It's obvious he does now.

What happens next is anyone's guess. But if this is like other politically charged topics, it probably will not go away anytime soon.

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