Both the Rockets and Jazz started off the season slow, sitting outside of the playoff race for the first third of the season.
Recent times have seen Houston and Utah rise into the middle of the pack in the West Playoff Picture.
Now, after long odds to bring these two teams together, the foes will meet for their ninth playoff series in NBA history and their second in as many years.
With everything on the line, we spoke to SLC Dunk site manager Mychal Lowman, to give us some perspective on the enemy.
Mychal Lowman, SLC Dunk: My what a difference a few days of preparation can do. Last year when the Utah Jazz faced the Houston Rockets, they were doing so with only 1 day in between the last game against the Oklahoma City Thunder then heading out to Houston to face the Rockets. Oh yeah, they were without their starting point guard who had been lost to injury a game earlier. The Jazz were scrambling for a plan and didn’t even have their blueprint from the prior series to rely on. They relied heavily on Donovan Mitchell at point guard and Houston preyed on his inexperience while scheming Rudy Gobert out as well.
This season it will not be as easy. Utah has added Kyle Korver to spread the floor, Ricky Rubio is assumed to be ready and healthy, and Rudy Gobert has improved both offensively so he’s a threat and defensively while guarding the perimeter more. The Utah Jazz are better. If Ricky Rubio, heaven forbid, has to leave the series early, Utah has a blueprint that they’ve used to replace him at point guard. They’re seasoned now. For Utah, making noise in the playoffs is no longer the goal. They did that last year. It’s proving they belong now. There’s another wrinkle: Thabo Sefolosha. His length and ability to guard James Harden while giving Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell a much needed break will make this series interesting.
2. The Houston Rockets boast one of the best backcourts in basketball in Chris Paul and James Harden. The Jazz were unable to stop that duo last year. Will we see an encore of that? How?
Mychal Lowman, SLC Dunk: While that was true last year, Utah was without their pesky point guard on the perimeter, Ricky Rubio, and didn’t have Thabo Sefolosha, an experienced perimeter defender. Utah will be able to throw a lot of different defensive looks at these two. Rudy Gobert has also improved his ability to guard in space. Houston challenged Utah by making Rudy Gobert guard the midrange last postseason and it made Rudy Gobert uncomfortable. This year, Utah has a plan for that. They’ve been preparing for this match up. They were hoping to expect in the 2nd round rather than the 1st, but they can’t control that.
The problem is not so much Chris Paul, it’s James Harden. It doesn’t matter who the Jazz throw at him, he’s going to light them up. It’s more about shutting down Chris Paul and making him a non factor while limiting the damage Clint Capela can do when he dives to the rim as Utah is keyed in on Harden.
3. If James Harden and Donovan Mitchell play their way into a stalemate, who is likely to step up for Utah?
Mychal Lowman, SLC Dunk: It’s easy to say Rudy Gobert, but I’m going to go a little out of the box and mention Derrick Favors. Derrick Favors wasn’t the sexiest of free agency moves last offseason. He decided to return to Utah with a diminished role--albeit while getting paid quite handsomely--but he produces big. Derrick Favors is averaging 18.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks PER36. He’s having his best season since his rookie year. He’s a beast. He’s easily a top 10 center and he plays on the same team as a top 3 center. His improved play this season could help Utah make Clint Capela a non factor while punishing Houston’s bench. That would allow Utah to limit Chris Paul’s impact and make Harden carry the burden of his full team. Derrick Favors could allow Utah to weaponize Houston’s game plan from last playoff’s against them.
4. Which Rockets player not named Chris Paul or James Harden are you most worried about having a big series?
Mychal Lowman, SLC Dunk: Eric Gordon. I believe Utah has the tools to slow down Capela, but Eric Gordon could be the key to Houston’s success if Utah is successful with their gameplan. They’re going to put the pressure of this series on James Harden and make anyone other than Chris Paul and Clint Capela have to consistently produce. If this series ends with Utah upsetting the Rockets or going to 7, it will be because Eric Gordon wasn’t able to capitalize on the opportunities the Jazz will afford him.
5. Which member of the Jazz not named Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert should Rockets fans be worried about having a big series?
Mychal Lowman, SLC Dunk: Joe Ingles. Joe shutdown Paul George last playoffs. He frustrated him and got in his head. He has the ability of playing way above his talent in the playoffs. He has done it for two straight playoffs. Chris Paul knows that very well from his time with the Clippers. Joe Ingles lives for the big moments and the big trash talk. This is his Super Bowl. He’s now going to get plenty of time to prepare for James Harden and Chris Paul on the perimeter. The Dad Bod God is ready.
6. Are you worried history will repeat itself?
Mychal Lowman, SLC Dunk: From last year? Yes. From 2006-2007, I don’t see it happening. Though an equally young and inexperienced Utah Jazz team did Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming dirty at that point and was a monster underdog. No one picked them to win that series. It took Deron Williams going from up and coming star to indisputable superstar, and Carlos Boozer having his best stretch of games in his career against Yao Ming. The same stars would have to realign for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to have similar luck. It’s always possible, but there’s a reason Utah didn’t want Houston. On the other hand, there’s also a reason Houston didn’t want Utah.