Houston Rockets (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)
This series has been billed as a matchup of offense (HOU ranks 2nd in the league) vs. defense (UTA is 2nd). I bring a slightly different slant to it, though; I think UTA’s defense will do fine in limiting Harden as best as anyone can hope to. I think their issue will be finding points themselves.
In fact, over the last 15 games, HOU ranks 2nd in the league in DRTG (104.5) only to…you guessed it, Utah. Since Jeff Bzdelik has returned, their defense has begun to look much more like the relentless defense that nearly ousted Golden State in last year’s playoffs.
The season series was 2-2, but it also finished on 2/2, and I’m not sure how much can be gleaned from that with both teams drastically different since then. Either way, you can expect a grind-it-out, old-school-feel to this series, which will benefit Utah. I just don’t know if they have enough offensive firepower to ultimately win it.
Series TV Schedule
Game 1: Sun, April 14 Utah at Houston, 9:30 ET, TNT
Game 2: Wed, April 17 Utah at Houston, 9:30 ET, TNT
Game 3: Sat, April 20 Houston at Utah, 10:30 ET, ESPN
Game 4: Mon, April 22 Houston at Utah 10:30 ET, TNT
Games 5-7 TBD if necessary
Houston Rockets Starting Lineup
Utah Jazz Starting Lineup
Key Player Matchups
PG: James Harden vs. Ricky Rubio
Edge Houston. Ya think? Rubio actually does a pretty good job on Harden (or as well as anyone can 1-on-1, at least). But his inability to make spot-up shots consistently is a big issue for the Jazz offense and HOU is able to regularly disrespect him without consequence. Harden, of course, will win this statistical matchup every game — the key for Utah will be deciding if they let Harden get his and limit everyone else, or vice-versa.
SG: Chris Paul vs. Donovan Mitchell
Edge Utah. Mitchell took another step forward this year after an initial rocky start. He only shot 40% from the field though and under 27% from 3 in the season series. With HOU’s switch-everything defense, he is the mismatch with the most iso scoring ability who the Jazz really need to carry them just about every night. If he steps up, Utah has a great chance in the series. If he doesn’t, well…
SF: Eric Gordon vs. Joe Ingles
Edge TOSS-UP. This one is the closest call in the series likely, and will also go a long way towards determining the outcome. Gordon is a dynamic scorer who can do it in a variety of ways and may be forced to really do a lot if Utah tries to deny Harden and not help off him any as they did last time these teams met (see video). He is on the wrong end of 30 though and showed signs of slowing down this season. Ingles is a lower usage-guy, but a star in his role for Utah — an elite 3PT shooter, savvy without the ball, and good secondary shot creator. The key will be if he can create any shots though against a defense that switches everything — in the regular season, he averaged 5.7 assists but only 3.5 against HOU.
PF: PJ Tucker vs. Jae Crowder
Edge Houston. Both players bring the ‘nasty’ to their teams; rough-and-tumble old-school guys who aren’t afraid to get physical. Tucker just does it a little better. He shoots the ball at an elite clip, took the most 3’s of his career (and left scorched earth behind him from the corners), slides to the 5 in their ‘Tuck-Wagon’ lineup, and allows them to switch everything by being able to guard every single position. Crowder brings the energy for Utah, but he’ll have to do even more than that for them to get some much-needed scoring.
C: Clint Capela vs. Rudy Gobert
Edge Utah. This one was painstakingly close honestly and should be a terrific battle to watch. Capela brings a bit more offensively, Gobert brings a bit more defensively. I’ll give the edge to the defense for now, but Rudy will have to do more than he’s used to offensively against HOU. Far too often the Rockets were able to switch tiny defenders on him and Gobert didn’t truly want the ball in the post. He needs to step up and prove he can occasionally punish HOU for their relentless switching.
Bench: House, Rivers, Green, Nene vs. O’Neale, Korver, Sefolosha, Favors
Edge: Utah. O’Neale might end up being Utah’s best option to guard Harden. Korver’s shooting ability can win the Jazz a game. Favors may end up out-playing Gobert at times. HOU’s guys all do things well, but I’m giving a slight edge to UTA here.
Coach: Mike D’Antoni vs. Quin Snyder
Edge: D’Antoni. A great coaching battle with two of the best guys in the league. The slight edge goes to D’Antoni: on top of being one of the best offensive minds of all-time, having Bzdelik to run one of the league’s toughest defenses gives Houston’s staff an edge.
Nene/Faried. UTA will try and force HOU to play their big lineups (not Tucker at the 5) as much as possible. This will mean either Nene or Kenneth Faried will spell Capela at the 5, and the Rockets need one of them to step up and give them something with reserve lineups. Harden’s usage has been through the roof all season, and it’s reasonable to think there will come a time in this series where he’ll just be gasping for air and need Nene, for example, to get a bucket in the post.
Joe Ingles. Ingles has proven himself as an elite shooter in the league and a very good all-around player. The next level for him will be proving he can not only survive a tough, grind-it-out playoff series but also thrive. The Rockets will switch bigs onto him and count on Ingles’ inability to create his own shot or beat his man. Ingles will have to prove capable of doing that and making plays for others as well as getting his own shot.
Rockets, 4-2. I wouldn’t be surprised if every game is super competitive or if this series ends up going 7. Honestly, think the biggest issue for UTA will be scoring. In the Rockets/Jazz games I watched, UTA had a lot of trouble taking care of the ball and getting quality looks against the Rockets’ tenacious switching defense. Their lack of shot-creators is a bad matchup against HOU’s defense in particular, and I think Harden ultimately will be too dominant for them to beat.
For more predictions on this and every series, visit our 2019 NBA Playoff Prediction Roundup.
Odds & Line Movement Links: Vegas Odds (All NBA Games Today)