The 2018 NBA Playoffs are off and running, and the second-round matchups are starting to take shape. There has been a mix of surprises and predictability thus far, and the second round should hold more of the same.
The second and final Western Conference semifinal round was set following Utah’s win over Oklahoma City on Friday. The Rockets have been waiting since Wednesday to see who they would be facing in the second round.
With the matchup official, here are some predictions and analysis of what this series could hold.
The Rockets made short work of the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Winning in just five games, Houston clearly overmatched and outclassed the Wolves.
Second halves were particularly strong for the Rockets. This includes a 50-point third quarter in Game 4. Every time it seemed like Minnesota had momentum, it was stomped out by the Rockets’ hot shooting and solid defense.
Only one of the five games was decided by single digits, as Game 1 ended 104-101 in favor of the Rockets. The rest were either blowouts or not hotly contested. The closeout game was decided by 18 points, which is indicative of the what the Wolves were able to muster against the best team in the NBA, in the face of elimination, no less.
The Rockets have scored an average of 110.4 points per game through their five contests. They are first in 3-pointers made and attempted, leading the second place teams by a wide margin. Despite their high-scoring ways, Houston’s field goal percentage sits at 44.5 percent. This is probably due to their offensive style of play, relying on threes rather than high-percentage looks.
The focal point of that offense, James Harden, sits at 29 points per game in the playoffs. His 3-point percentage is sky high, at 38.5 percent. Chris Paul, his backcourt teammate, is scoring at a clip of 19 points per game, while dishing out 6.6 assists. Those assists actually sit 0.8 lower than Harden’s.
Houston just keeps solidifying itself as the best team in the NBA. But with a relatively easy first-round matchup over, now the real tests begin.
One of the best stories in the 2018 playoffs has been this Utah Jazz team. Led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, Utah took down a team led by three potential future Hall of Fame talents in the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In six games, the Jazz were able to ride their brand of defense-oriented basketball to a series win that not many saw coming. The combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was supposed to be built for playoff basketball. But the team fell flat against a potential new Western Conference powerhouse.
Mitchell has been putting up numbers not seen by a rookie in the playoffs since Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Averaging 28.5 points per game while also grabbing 7.2 rebounds, Mitchell has continued his dominance. Ricky Rubio has also been playing very well, scoring at a clip of 14 points per game and dishing out seven assists. Rubio also had a triple-double in Utah’s Game 3 win in Salt Lake City.
Coach Quin Snyder’s team has arguably over-achieved this season on the back of a possible Rookie of the Year campaign by Mitchell. But their undeniable performances against Oklahoma City and their big three may paint this team in a different light. The defense is some of the best in the league, and the scoring is confusing and frustrating of opposing teams.
Utah is a team that struggles to draw free agents, but if the team continues to play like this, then Western Conference championships and NBA Finals appearances are certainly on the horizon.
Preview and predictions
Utah will be an interesting challenge for the NBA’s best regular season team. Houston has a historically high-powered offense, but NBA fans just saw the Jazz’s defense shut down some of the premiere scorers in the league in the first round.
With Rudy Gobert locking down the paint, he might neutralize Clint Capela in the post. His two blocks per game are tied for fourth in the playoffs, and he can guard smaller players as well. Rubio has never been known for his defense, but his offense has nearly matched that of Chris Paul’s lately. Plus, his passing ability rivals Paul’s own.
The matchup to watch, however, will be Harden versus Mitchell. The defensive end of the floor will be irrelevant, but the offensive show these two players can put on will be ridiculously exciting. Look for Mitchell to do his best to match Harden’s performance, while Harden looks to show up the rookie at all costs. Plus, NBA fans have seen Harden go cold in the playoffs in the past, whereas Mitchell just keeps on delivering.
In the end, though, it is hard to bet against this Houston team. Their regular season pedigree speaks for itself, and in the NBA, more so than any other sport, great offense can beat great defense.
This one will be close, and a new rivalry might be born. But expect the Rockets’ push towards the finals to continue.
Rockets in six
Featured image by Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports
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