10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line; Jazz -3, Over/Under: 216
At least one Series in the Western Conference Playoffs is going according to script, as the Houston Rockets look to take a commanding 3-0 lead over the Utah Jazz as their Series shifts to Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah for the next two contests. It certainly doesn’t bear repeating, but we’ll do so anyway: the Rockets (53-29, 4th in Western Conference) were the hottest team in the league after the All-Star Break, winning Twenty out of their final Twenty-Five Games since that intermission, launching themselves to the Fourth Seed in the Western Conference. After a slow start to the campaign marred by injuries, Houston was initially able to remain afloat thanks to the their prolific MVP, James Harden (36.1 PTS, 44.2% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 7.5 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 30.6 PER), who dominated throughout a midseason stretch in which the bearded assassin scored at least Thirty Points in a staggering Thirty-Two consecutive outings. The Seven-Time All-Star Shooting Guard averaged a ridiculous 41.1 Points per Game during that run, which happened to coincide with a pair of teammates, Chris Paul (15.6 PTS, 41.9% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 8.2 AST, 2.0 STL, 19.7 PER) and Clint Capela (16.6 PTS, 64.8% FG, 12.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.5 BLK, 23.8 PER), on the sidelines nursing respective injuries. Also during that period, Management was rather active, working a slew of deals to help plug the proverbial leaks in the ship, acquiring veterans such as Austin Rivers (8.7 PTS, 41.3% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 8.2 PER), Kenneth Faried (12.9 PTS, 58.7% FG, 8.2 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER), and Iman Shumpert (4.6 PTS, 34.7% FG, 29.6% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 6.3 PER). Eventually, a return to health helped alleviate some of the weight from Harden’s shoulders, while also building precious depth heading into the Playoffs. While this team isn’t quite the juggernaut it was a year ago, there is a train of thought that believes they just may be a little more well-rounded than they were in 2018-2019, when their run came up short in that ill-fated Western Conference Final against the Golden State Warriors. Speaking of the Warriors, if they do end up seeing them in these Playoffs, it will be much earlier than that, for as the Fourth Seed, Mike D’Antoni’s charges would likely meet the reigning NBA Champions in the Western Semifinals, though they’ll have to get through the rugged Utah Jazz first. In Game One of this First Round Series, the Rockets put on a show, powering past their counterpart in a 122-90 drubbing. This one was never actually close, folks, for the hosts raced out to a 31-24 lead in the First Quarter, led 59-44 at Halftime, and outscored the visitors 39-19 in the final stanza for good measure. When it was all said and done, Houston shot a blistering 50.5% from the field, including 15-of-41 from beyond the arc (36.6%), and handed out Twenty-Five Assists in comparison to committing just Ten Turnovers. Seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Harden, who poured in Twenty-Nine Points on 11-of-26 shooting (42.3%), including 4-of-10 from downtown (40.0%), along with Eight Rebounds, and Ten Assists. The aforementioned Capela totaled Sixteen Points and Twelve Rebounds, while Eric Gordon (16.2 PTS, 40.9% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 12.2 PER) added another Seventeen Points on 5-of-10 shooting from the floor (50.0%), including 3-of-5 from long-range (60.0%). As is often the case with this group that is so prolific from beyond the arc, they can be virtually unbeatable when they get into a groove; Houston outscored Utah by Twenty-Four Points in this regard, while besting their opponents by an average margin of 18.0 Points per Game during the regular Season.
If you were expecting things to tighten up in Game Two, then you’re in for some sizable disappointment, folks, for the Rockets extended their dominance in this Series, embarrassing the Jazz 118-98. It was more of the same for the hosts, who once again had their way with their opponent. Mike D’Antoni’s troops raced out to an early 39-19 lead to close the First Quarter, en route to establishing a rather comfortable 70-44 advantage at Halftime, and as you can surmise, it never get close the rest of the way. For the second consecutive affair, the hosts shot the basketball well, knocking down 47.5% of their attempts form the field, including a whopping 17-of-42 from beyond the arc (40.5%), and netting 25-of-30 Free-Throws (83.3%) to boot. On the night, Houston outscored Utah by Twenty-Seven Points in regards to Three-Pointers, and by Thirteen Points from the Charity Stripe. If you’re familiar with these guys, this is precisely where they get over on their opponents, making it absolutely no surprise that through the first two games of this Series that they’ve batted their counterpart in these two categories, owning a Plus-51 in the former and a Plus-1 advantage in the latter. That translates to an average disparity of 26.0 Points in those areas combined, which again, isn’t unrealistic when you consider this particular matchup of contrasting styles. The aforementioned Harden racked up a Triple-Double, with a game-high Thirty-Two Points on 11-of-24 shooting (45.8%), including 6-of-13 from downtown (46.2%), along with Thirteen Rebounds, and Ten Assists. The reigning MVP got busy early, scoring Twenty-Five of his Point Total in the First Half alone, on his way to logging his third career Postseason Triple-Double. Paul added Seventeen Points on 5-of-11 shooting (45.5%), Four Rebounds, Three Assists, Two Steals, and Two Blocks, while Gordon and P.J. Tucker (7.3 PTS, 39.6% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 12 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 9.2 PER) dropped Sixteen Points apiece, drilling a cumulative 7-of-13 from long-range (53.8%). Wednesday’s performance marked the eleventh consecutive affair in which the Rockets buried at least Fifteen Three-Pointers. As we said earlier, when they are shooting at this kind of clip, it’s almost impossible to keep up with them, as the Jazz are quickly finding out the hard way…
Meanwhile, after consecutive trips to the Western Conference Semifinals, the Jazz (50-32, 5th in Western Conference) are staring at an early exit, ironically by the same team that eliminated them a year ago. Last Spring, Utah ran into a proverbial buzz-saw in the form of Houston, undergoing a Gentleman’s Sweep courtesy of the One Seed in five games. Similar to each of the two previous seasons, Quin Snyder’s charges have proven to be late-bloomers, overcoming a slow start to the term, and catching fire late; this team went 18-7 after the All-Star Break, including 13-3 over the final Sixteen Contests. A marked improvement on the offensive end of the court is the reason why, for the Jazz averaged 117.5 Points on 48.2% shooting from the field, including 38.0% from beyond the arc, while exhibiting excellent ball-movement with 28.3 Assists, and mauling their opposition on the glass, outrebounding them by a margin of 6.1 Boards per Game. Despite playing much of the stretch run without the services of veteran Point Guard Ricky Rubio (12.7 PTS, 40.4% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.3 STL, 14.0 PER), who had missed four of the final five games due to a Strained Quadriceps, the exponential improvement on offense came down to Donovan Mitchell (23.8 PTS, 43.2% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.4 BLK, 17.2 PER) rediscovering his scintillating rookie form, and expanding on it. The Sophomore Shooting Guard embodied his team’s slow start, averaging 22.4 Points on a disappointing 41.8% shooting from the field, including a miserable 32.2% from downtown, along with 3.9 Rebounds, and 4.0 Assists, only to see those numbers explode after the Break, scoring 26.7 Points per Game on 46.1% shooting, including a scorching 45.1% from three, with 4.5 Rebounds, and 4.6 Assists. Indeed, it appears that he has put that dreaded Sophomore Slump to rest once and for all. And it was with this newfound offensive form that some in the Basketball World were giving Utah a legitimate opportunity to upset Houston, but after Game One’s 32-Point Defeat, we think that that confidence may have been a bit premature. It was almost impossible to walk away from Sunday’s debacle without feeling like these guys were more than a little overwhelmed by the onslaught that they met. Granted, the Rockets are capable of doing that to just about any team when they’re shooting like they did from beyond the arc, and Snyder may want to rethink the notion of going into this series and hoping to outgun the opposition. Surely he’s smarter than that, right? Either way, the Jazz looked completely discombobulated on the offensive end of the court, shooting a meager 39.0% from the field, including 7-of-27 from downtown (25.9%), while committing more Turnovers (20) than Assists (17). Mitchell, who scored Nineteen Points on a dreadful 7-of-18 shooting (38.9%), accounted for Five of those Turnovers, which were only compounded with Zero Assists. Towering Frenchman, Rudy Gobert (15.9 PTS, 66.9% FG, 12.9 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.3 BLK, 24.6 PER) scored a team-high Twenty-Two Points on an efficient 8-of-10 shooting (80.0%), along with Twelve Rebounds, but also coughed up the rock four times, and could do little to stop the ensuing barrage from the perimeter. Furthermore, this affair could have been even uglier had the visiting side not knocked down 23-of-27 Free-Throws (85.2%), which was about the only thing that they did better than hosts, outscoring them by a dozen points in that regard.
If you were expecting the Jazz to bounce back in Game Two, then you’re going to have to keep waiting, for the only thing that the visiting side can hang their hat on in Wednesday’s 98-118 defeat was the fact that they only lost by Twenty Points, which was in fact a marginal improvement over the 32-Point Loss that they sustained in Game One. Through two games of this Series, it has become abundantly clear that Utah simply can’t match Houston in terms of offensive firepower, for on each occasion they’ve worn the visage of a team that has become overwhelmed on the offensive end of the court, unable to keep pace with their opponent. We touched upon their poor shooting in Game One, though it was markedly worse in it’s successor; Snyder’s troops only managed to shoot a miserable 39.8% from the field, including 8-of-38 from beyond the arc (21.1%), and unlike it’s predecessor when they lived at the Charity Stripe, they only knocked down 12-of-18 Free-Throws (66.7%) this time around. Making matters even more hopeless was that they manufactured virtually all of their offense through solid ball-movement, assisting on Twenty-Seven of Thirty-Nine Field Goals, while committing just Twelve Turnovers. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the Series, for if you can only manage to shoot below 40.0% from the field when you are moving the basketball, what’s going to happen to you when you start coughing up the rock? Five different players scored in double-figures for the visiting side, though none of them totaled more than Seventeen Points, led by Rubio, who shot 7-of-17 overall (41.2%), and dished out Nine Assists, while Mitchell suffered from the floor, scoring a meager Eleven Points on a disastrous 5-of-19 shooting (26.3%). Clearly he’s fallen out of that sweet-shooting groove that he discovered after the All-Star Break. Wednesday’s loss marked eight out of ten losses on the road in the Playoffs for the Jazz since 2017, including their fourth in five meetings with the Rockets.