3 key things to watch in Rockets-Jazz
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Donovan Mitchell, James Harden

3 key things to watch in Rockets-Jazz

The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz will meet in the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs with the series beginning Sunday at Toyota Center at 9:30 p.m. ET. The Rockets finished the 2018-19 season with a 53-29 record, good enough for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. The fifth-seeded Utah Jazz posted a 50-32 record. The teams split the regular-season series 2-2. Here are three things to watch for ahead of this Western Conference first-round matchup.

Is Utah Better Adjusted for Playoff Rematch?

The Rockets beat the Jazz four games to one in the Western Conference semifinals last season. Those Rockets maintained the top record in the NBA and had forward Trevor Ariza at their disposal. A defensive stalwart, Ariza was effective in minimizing then-rookie Donovan Mitchell, who shot just 36.1 percent from the field across the five contests. Mitchell averaged 19.4 points per game, roughly nine points lower (28.5) than he mustered in the team’s first-round series victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Can Houston manage to contain Mitchell again this postseason, even without the defensive prowess of the departed Ariza? In the four regular-season games between the two clubs, Mitchell shot just 40 percent overall and merely 26.7 percent on three-pointers. He will have to make shots at a more consistent rate in order for the Jazz to stand a chance against the Rockets, who won 20 of their final 24 games despite losing their regular-season finale.

Top-Notch Offense Versus Elite Defense

The No. 2 ranked offense in the NBA, the James Harden-led Rockets present the Jazz with quite the defensive challenge. While it won’t be easy to defend MVP candidate Harden, who logged an insane league-high 36.1 points per contest over his dominant campaign, the Jazz is no slouch on defense. It finished No. 2 in defensive rating, led by shot-blocking center Rudy Gobert. The 7-footer averaged 2.31 blocks per contest and registered the best Defensive Real Plus-Minus in the NBA. Gobert was outplayed by his counterpart Clint Capela last postseason, but Utah’s center has made major strides and the Defensive Player of the Year candidate should fare better this time around.

The Jazz allow the second-fewest second-chance points in the league. More pertinent to this matchup, the Jazz surrender the second-fewest 3’s per game in the NBA. The Rockets are deadly from downtown, hitting more three-pointers than any team in NBA history. Harden knocks down nearly five (4.8) 3’s per night, Eric Gordon makes over three (3.2) treys per contest, while Chris Paul (2.2), Gerald Green (2.1), Daniel House (1.9) and PJ Tucker (1.8) all hit roughly a couple 3-pointers per game.

Utah did an effective job defending Houston’s three-point launchers in the four matchups this year. Gordon made only five of his 26 three-point attempts. Paul missed two of the contests due to injury, but he struggled mightily in the two games he suited up for. He made just one three-pointer and averaged 11.5 points on 38.1 percent shooting.

In order to combat Houston’s proclivity to take three-pointers, Utah head coach Quinn Snyder has deployed a small-ball lineup in previous matchups by starting Jae Crowder and sliding Derrick Favors into the second unit. Crowder, a versatile defender who can guard just about any position outside of center, could be Utah’s x-factor.

Rick Rubio’s Health

Jazz point guard Rick Rubio missed the team’s final three games of the season with a quad injury. His status for Sunday is uncertain. If he is unable to go, the Jazz will likely start Royce O’Neale and shift the ball-handling duties to Mitchell. O’Neale is an excellent defender and could be the one tasked with guarding Harden.

Rubio’s playmaking abilities will be sorely missed. If he can’t suit up, the burden will be on Mitchell and small forward Joe Ingles to spearhead the offense and set up shots for teammates.

The Jazz will lean on its defense and look to avoid shootouts. But the reality is Houston can score at an incredible rate and great offense bests stingy defense in the playoffs. This means Utah needs Mitchell and Ingles to have their offense rolling to keep up with the high-octane Rockets’ offense.

Prediction

After starting the season 11-14, the Rockets finally look like NBA title contenders. On the back of Harden, the Rockets were the best team in the league post-All-Star break.

Houston has its hands full with a feisty Jazz squad that won 12 times in a 13-game span from mid-March to early-April. This won’t be a short series, but the Rockets are the better team and will prevail in six games.