As the four seed vs. five seed matchup in the West, the Houston Rockets will face the Utah Jazz. The series will be a rematch of last year’s semi-finals, a series in which Houston won in five games.
Three games apart in the standings, Houston and Utah have split the season series two games apiece, with only one game being decided by less than 10 points.
This first round series features one of the league’s best offensive teams against one of the league’s defensive teams.
With Chris Paul missing a large portion of the season due to injury, James Harden took on an extra load and delivered. Averaging 36 points per game along with 6.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists, the reigning MVP had another incredible season, and could take home the award again this year.
The Rockets are nearly tied for first in offense rating this season, and score an average of 113.9 points per game.
Harden is aided by Paul at the point guard spot, averaging 15.6 points and 8.2 assists, along with Eric Gordon who averages 16.2 points per game.
The Rockets frontcourt of Clint Capela and Nene will face a tough challenge of matching up against Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors of the Jazz.
While Capela is having a career year in points and rebounds, Gobert is one of the best defenders in the league. The Rockets, like they have all season, will have to rely on their offense to win. They will be facing a tough challenge in Utah, who have the second-best defensive rating in the league.
While a middle-of-the-road team offensively, Utah’s defense has earned them the fifth seed in the Western Conference. The Jazz rank in the top five for opponent’s points allowed, and are tied for second in blocks per game, behind Gobert’s 2.3 a game.
Gobert’s 16 points and 13 rebounds support Donovan Mitchell, who has improved in several categories in his sophomore season.
The Jazz get scoring from several different players. Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio add 12 points as starters, while Jae Crowder puts in 12 points and five rebounds in his sixth man role.
While a strong defensive team, Utah may have trouble keeping up with Houston’s offense, as Harden has shown no signs of slowing down this season. While Gobert anchors the paint, Utah will look to limit perimeter shooting.
With both teams blowing each other out this year, as well as both playing well at home, this series could go seven games.
Houston will have to play extra well defensively, while Utah will have to work harder to keep up with Houston’s offense. Gobert and Derrick Favors have the opportunity to hurt Houston inside, as they rank in the bottom three for points in the paint allowed.
The big question mark for the Jazz is who will guard Harden the best. They did not seem to find an answer when these teams met last season, as Harden averaged 28 points per game.
Unfortunately for Utah, Harden has been largely unstoppable this year. While Mitchell is a great player, and even Jae Crowder will make for a great matchup, Harden can do things late in games that few players can. This may end up being the difference.
Houston in 6
Featured image credited to USA Today.
Stats credited to basketball-reference.com.