The Utah Jazz are finishing the year like a freight train.
That may not be what Rockets fans want to hear, but it's true nevertheless.
The Jazz are 19-9 since the All-Star break, and that includes a complete demolition of the Rockets in SLC. Houston has a similar 19-9 record since the break, but have very few comfortable wins in that timeframe.
Everything changed for the Jazz when they traded Enes Kanter to the Thunder. The trade allowed Rudy Gobert to step into the spotlight and he has not disappointed. His matchup with Dwight tonight will be the key to the game.
As for Houston, you've seen the playoff scenarios courtesy of NorEastern. A win tonight guarantees home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Two years ago the Rockets had to get a win in Los Angeles on the last day of the season to avoid falling to the 8 seed in the West. They lost in OT and got matched up with the Thunder. A win tonight, even if it only leaves Houston in 5th place, could do wonders for a team that hasn't closed out seasons very well the last two years. Remember, they started down 0-3 to the Thunder and 0-2 to the Blazers.
Let's move on to something that I've wanted to rant about for a few years now. It's about games on the last day of the season.
I believe that the league should adapt the same policy as the Premier League and other soccer leagues around the world. Those leagues have every team play on the last day of the season at the exact same time to avoid earlier games influencing later games.
Now I get that there are two major differences between soccer and the NBA. First, most European countries exist in one time zone. The NBA has 4. The second issue is that European leagues don't have a playoff system. The best team at the end of the regular season is the champion.
The first issue is the more important one and a major detriment to implementing a plan to have every game start at the same time. We already only have 14 games on the last day. That's fine if it isn't 15. This way, we can have 7 East games and 7 West games. If the league eliminates intra-conference games on the last day, we can still have two sets of games (thus solving the tv problems that are likely to arise) at 7pm and 10pm CST. The solution is to have all 7 East games at 8pm ET. Since the East and West wouldn't be affected by one another, it wouldn't matter that they weren't at the same time and the East would be sorted out by 10:30pm ET.
The other 7 games would take place across two adjoining time zones in the West that would alternate every year to make sure everyone got a home game every other year or so. For example, the games would all be played in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. They would start at 8pm in the Mountain zone and 7pm Pacific time. Therefore, they would be starting at the exact same time. Imagine the Thunder playing in Denver on the last day and having to keep up with the Pelicans playing in Portland. As it stands right now, the league lucked out and both the Thunder and Pelicans start tonight at 7pm. But what if they didn't? It could take a lot of fun out of the situation.
As for the second part, these games still matter a great deal even if they don't directly influence who wins the championship. We've seen before (and we'll see again) that they final-day matchups can change the entire complexion of the playoffs. And that's awesome. So why give a team like Portland or the Clippers an advantage in the future by letting them know in advance what results they need?
Anyway, rant over. Thanks for putting up with me throughout the year. I write these previews because I love writing for you guys and there's nothing more fun than having intellectual discussions about the Rockets. Thanks for everything you guys do. And a huge thanks to those who covered for me when I couldn't write a preview.
Tip off is at 7pm CST.
Point Guard: Propeller Plane vs. Dante Exum
The Jazz have been dealing with injuries late in the season. While they may look like "injuries" to cover up tanking, the Jazz have continued to win. So be wary of players possibly being out. This Jazz squad is clicking and will try to win this game.
With that said, Trey Burke has missed the last 3 games for the Jazz. In his place in the Australian Exum.
Now, Exum hasn't yet delivered on the hype surrounding him coming into the draft, but he's getting minutes now that he wasn't getting earlier in the year. He's also shooting 37% from 3 in his last five games.
Plus, he delivered some of the best commercials before the season started.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Rodney Hood
I think we're all hoping that James Harden joins this list one day.
Houston will have to watch Hood and try to keep him from getting open looks from distance. He burned the Rockets for 20 points on 8-16 shooting. Not only that, but Houston didn't exactly inspire confidence in their defense of the 3-point line against the Hornets. Hopefully, they can figure out their assignments and switches enough to stop Hood from destroying them from deep.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Joe Ingles
Because it belongs in every preview, and I don't have much to say about Ariza or Ingles. Well, it does bear mentioning that Ingles is shooting 47% from distance in his last 5 games.
But still, this has to be here.
Power Forward: Terrence Jones vs. Trevor Booker
The Rockets are going to be depending a lot on Terrence Jones in the postseason. He's been inconsistent in his last few games, but overall his energy and athleticism have helped make up for some of his mistakes.
The Rockets are going to have to play against a great power forward in the first round no matter who they match up with. Jones is going to see Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, or Dirk Nowitzki in the first round. And if he gets out of the first round, he'll have one of those guys OR Draymond Green and David Lee to deal with.
So tonight is T-Jones' last night to really get going heading into the postseason because once he's there, he won't be able to feel his way through like he did last year. I think he can't possibly do worse than he did last season, but the Rockets will need him to take a big step if they want to surprise some folks.
It's important to note that Booker scored 36 points on 12-15 shooting on Sunday against the Blazers.
Center: Dwight Howard vs. Rudy Gobert
This is the only matchup in which Utah has a true advantage over Houston (assuming the injury situation doesn't change). Gobert destroyed the Rockets to the tune of 19/22/4 in Utah last month.
Gobert is averaging 13 points and 13 rebounds per game in April on 60% shooting. He's also blocking 2.3 shots per game. In short, the Stifle Tower has been dominant down low.
Houston fans will contend that Gobert got those stats against a non-existent front line. Houston was without Dwight Howard in that game and the Rockets were on a back-to-back after playing the previous night in Portland.
Speaking of Dwight, he should be playing in the 30 minute range tonight and hopefully McHale can play him minute-for-minute with Gobert. Houston's strategy should also be to attack the rim and try to get Gobert in foul trouble early. Gobert has picked up more than 4 fouls just once since the All-Star break.
Rockets: Corey Brewer, Pablo Prigioni, Josh Smith, Joey Dorsey
Jazz: Grant Jerrett, Jeremy Evans, Chris Johnson, Jack Cooley, Bryce Cotton, Elijah Millsap
Prediction: Rockets win because they must.
Jazz vs Rockets coverage