NBA Playoffs Round 2 Series Preview: Utah Jazz vs. Houston Rockets
Game 1 Odds
Utah at Houston
Time: 2:30 PM (ABC/ESPN)
Spread: HOU -11.5
Odds c/o 5dimes
The Utah Jazz managed an impressive 4-1 series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Utah’s offensive prowess will be put to the test in Round 2 as it collides with the most offensively-loaded team in the Association, the No. 1 offensive rated Houston Rockets. Houston is heavy 11.5-point favorites in Game 1, which will tip off at 2:30 PM (CT) on ESPN from Houston. The over/under is set at 206 points, a strange betting figure reflective of the league’s slowest-paced team (Utah) colliding with the fastest. It should be a series of testing wills, with regard to how the pace of these games progresses.
Utah, of course, would prefer to keep these games on the lower-scoring side, because in a run and gun affair, it is tough to believe that it could keep pace with the Rockets. Houston averaged the second-most points per game this season at 112.4 while holding opponents to 103.9. Conversely, Utah managed just 104.1 points per game but held opponents to a league-low 99.8 per contest. Doing the math, the over/under of 206 sounds about right, but it will be determined by Raul Neto/Dante Exum… and Chris Paul.
Which point guards can impose his will on the game will go a long way towards determining both the point total—and the series victors. Something lends us to favoring a legendary Chris Paul over the Jazz’s backups.
Even so, let us examine the crucial backcourt matchups along with the rest of the ways these teams align in our Series Preview here at Maddux Sports.
Backcourt: Ricky Rubio (hamstring)/Donovan Mitchell vs. Chris Paul/James Harden
If nothing else, Donovan Mitchell is one of the league’s brightest young stars. But can he be enough against arguably the league’s best backcourt? Chris Paul and James Harden molded seamlessly this season, clicking with perfect chemistry, to produce a team that exceeded the over/under on season wins by a full 10 (Vegas had set the o/u on Rockets wins at 55.5 prior to this season).
Indeed, Houston’s defense has as much to do with that success as the passing prowess and offensive skills of its starting backcourt, but it is hard to ignore what James Harden is really capable of while he is playing his best ball. Between (seemingly) getting every call and his impressive guile, sometimes it seems entirely impossible to fully shut down what Beard does. Houston did not win 65-games by accident.
That is to say, an on-fire Harden is nearly enough to sink any NBA team on his own. Combining his skills with the savvy and intelligent play of CP3 forms a combination the NBA, by and large, has been unable to overcome. Mitchell is one of the most seasoned and ready rookies in a long time, and Rubio brings plenty of experience if he even manages to suit up this series— but Utah is simply outclassed by a talented duo that really can only be matched by the likes of “The Splash Brothers” or Portland’s loaded backcourt. Utah, even with a Rookie of the Year candidate, is going to have a lot of trouble doing anything close to containing the Paul/Harden pairing. With Raul Neto and Dante Exum in charge, this series ends abruptly, so Utah better keep the hope Rubio’s hamstring responds to treatments rapidly. Maybe that is asking the absurd.
Advantage: Houston, by a country mile
Frontcourt: Joe Ingles/Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert vs. Trevor Ariza/PJ Tucker/Clint Capela
These front courts are a lot closer matched than the backcourts. Both lack an offensive superstar, but both are deceptively solid. Clint Capela is emerging as a star, and he outplayed superstar Karl-Anthony Towns for much of the opening series, especially its first two games. Rudy Gobert should be the 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year, but he has his offensive shortcomings. Derrick Favors has had a renaissance of sorts, becoming a rebounding machine (again?) and Jae Crowder backs him up as one of the best 3/4 defenders in the league.
Utah backup 5-man Ekpe Udoh is a shot blocking machine to back up the league’s best at that facet. The Jazz packs a lot of defensive punch, and Joe Ingles does a little bit of everything while also covering opponents quite well. PJ Tucker emerged in a major way for Houston to demote the sharpshooting Ryan Anderson to the bench, but we do like the Utah trio a little better than the defensively-minded Houston frontcourt.
Capela and Gobert are the matchups to watch here, because while both are primarily defensive cogs for their respective teams, either having an offensive performance could make a major swing in this series, and to be clear, both are capable of getting buckets around the rim.
The Jazz really has a nice set of backups in the frontcourt, and Donovan Mitchell will play so many minutes that it does not matter if he has anyone behind him. Where the Rockets take a major edge here is with Anderson and Eric Gordon coming off the pine. Gordon is a potential Sixth Man of the Year and major scorer, and most notably, the third guard in Houston’s effective three-guard rotation. Utah has Dante Exum and Raul Neto behind Rubio, comparatively, and while neither player is necessarily that bad, they are not that good either. Houston also has a high scoring Gerald Green, veteran savvy Joe Johnson and two defensive players worth their weight in the postseason in Nene Hilario and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Simply, the Rockets have more of the components necessary to form a rotation, while Utah is heavily reliant on its starters at 3 of the 5 positions, at least.
The Bottom Line:
Utah is a team on the rise–and one that most expected to be lottery bound this season. Instead, they are in the second round of the playoffs needing to scare up more offense than possible to keep pace with the Rockets. Yet, did we not say the same thing last round against OKC, a series that it won in five games? Utah might continue to do the improbable and impose its pace and will on this series while milking the young Donovan Mitchell for every ounce of offense he can provide. Even if Utah does that, it is still difficult to see it outclassing a 65-win team that is notably better than every Western Conference team outside of the Warriors.
Houston is primed and ready to make a title run, while Utah is kind of just happy to be here. There is little pressure on the Jazz, and while they can make this a series, it is really tough to imagine it outscoring the Rockets over a seven-game stint. Many might be calling Rockets in 5 or 6, but with a healthy Harry Potter that might not be the case… Rubio’s injury casts a massive cloud over this series and entirely negates any chances of it going the distance, however.
Prediction: Rockets in 5