The Houston Rockets had the number two seed in their grasp, only for a late Paul George three-pointer to knock them down to fourth. That sets up an intriguing series against the Utah Jazz – and a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semi-finals. In many ways, it is cruel for this to be a first round clash, given that these are likely two of the best five teams in the league also two good teams to bet on basketball.
The central storylines
James Harden is a matchup nightmare for every team in the league, but look for the Jazz to be especially stretched by the reigning MVP’s array of moves. He has made 40-point nights seem routine and his stepback triple is unguardable. While Rudy Gobert’s rim protection will help to deter some drives, can Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale do enough to throw Harden off balance? Forcing him to dribble to his right and staying home on the perimeter seems like Utah’s best path.
Last season, the Rockets dispatched the Jazz in five games and the Utah offense was frequently stuck in mud. Rubio missed the whole series and it will be worth watching whether he can take some of the playmaking (and scoring) burden off Donovan Mitchell and Ingles. Utah finished the season on a fine run, but it still feels as though they are one scorer light.
Chris Paul carved up the Jazz last season but his health is always a factor to monitor. Hamstring injuries often linger and Houston would be wise to limit his minutes wherever possible, especially with a showdown with the Golden State Warriors surely awaiting the winner of this series. Utah would be wise to make Paul and Harden work defensively as a counter move.
The key matchup – Clint Capela vs. Gobert
Capela more than held his own in this tussle last year and his chemistry with Harden in the pick and roll could well give the Jazz fits again. If Utah are going to take this the distance and reach the next round, Gobert has to keep Capela off the glass and find a way to break up the frequent dunk opportunities that Harden creates for his big man.
Regular season clashes
2-2, but Paul missed the first of those games (which was so early in the season that Carmelo Anthony was still a Rocket). In the most recent matchup, Harden poured in 43 points to spark a convincing road win.
Rockets in 6. Each game should be tight, but Harden has shown all season that he can reach a level higher than almost anyone in the league. As long as Paul stays healthy to take turns running the offense, Houston have the edge here. It would take an electric Mitchell series and some ice cold three-point shooting from the Rockets (both possible) for Utah to come out on top.