Just a little under a year ago, the Utah Jazz pulled off the biggest upset last postseason. Led by a strong Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz pulled a stunner in six games, as they defeated the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference First-Round
Utah’s luck quickly dissolved in the next round, however, as the top-seeded Houston Rockets eliminated the Jazz in five games of the Western Conference Semifinals. Following the elimination, it was clear that the up-and-coming Jazz would be another team standing in the way of the Rockets on their quest to an NBA title over the next several years.
Now, after nearly six months of preparation, the Rockets and the Jazz are gearing up to add another chapter to their rich history, as both teams prepare to kick off the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Sunday night, in the Toyota Center in Houston.
While the Jazz are far from a pushover, few believe in Utah’s ability to upset their first-round opponent. Despite their regular season series tied at two games apiece, the Rockets are rolling into the postseason winners of six of their last seven games and a record of 20-5 since the All-Star break.
Although the Rockets are expected to come out on the winning side of the series, moving on to a second-round date against the Golden State Warriors will not come without a hard-fought win against the Jazz. There are several qualities that make the Jazz a tough opponent, and the first is finding a solution to slow down Donovan Mitchell.
Yes, the Jazz will have their hands full trying to contain James Harden, but the Rockets will have that same problem on the defensive side trying to slow down Utah’s sophomore sensation.
Early in his young career, the Rockets have had a mixed bag defending Mitchell. In 13 games, Mitchell is currently averaging 20.0 points while shooting just 40.0 percent from the field versus Houston, but his biggest game against the Rockets came in an early-season 100-89 victory, where Mitchell notched 38 points on 56.0 percent shooting from the field, to go along with 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.
The problem with slowing down Mitchell is like Harden, Mitchell can get hot at any time and his scoring alone can lead the Jazz to a few victories throughout the playoffs.
However, the one key to slowing down Mitchell is his inability to score from the outside. Over the course of his career, Mitchell has yet to establish himself as a major threat from the outside, shooting 35.0 percent from deep for his career. Most of his baskets come from his mid-range game and ability to get to the rim, yet if the Rockets can force Mitchell to shoot from the outside, his scoring impact on the game should diminish.
Another trait that may cause problems for the Rockets is Utah’s ability to control the boards. Throughout the regular season, the Rockets have had their fair share of struggles in the rebounding department with the league’s third-worst average of 42.1 rebounds per game. And against the Jazz, that could be a huge problem.
Lead by their center, Rudy Gobert (12.9 RPG), expect the Jazz to take full advantage of one of the Rockets’ greatest weaknesses. As a team, the Jazz ended the season as the ninth-best rebounding team in the league, averaging 46.4 rebounds per game. In addition, Utah also recorded 10 offensive rebounds per game which led to an average of 13.3 second-chance points per game for the season.
Against Houston, the Jazz outrebounded the Rockets in all four regular season games and averaged an incredible 62.7 rebounds per game. With Clint Capela the Rockets’ most reliable rebounder, controlling the glass should be the number-one priority for P.J. Tucker, Kenneth Faried, and Nene heading into series.
Of all the ways the Jazz could upset the Rockets, the number one factor that can play into a win for Utah is defense. In the words of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
No matter the decade nor the era, the Utah Jazz have a long tradition of being a top defensive team in the league, and 2019 is no different. All season long, the Jazz have established themselves as the best defensive team in the Western Conference, with defensive rating of 105.2 per game.
Outside of scoring 125 points in their last regular season meeting, the Rockets often struggled to score when playing against the defensive-minded Jazz. Houston failed to score over 100 in two of their four games versus Utah and averaged 101.7 points in their regular season series. Houston’s average on the year was 113.9 points per game.
If they can build off last season’s success and postseason experience, the Jazz have a chance to pull off one of the biggest upsets in league history. To avoid embarrassment, the Rockets must prepare themselves for a hard-fought and competitive series.
However, despite the Jazz’s confidence and competitive play, Utah will come up short of another upset in the first round; Rockets in six.
Editors Note: We’ll have full predictions for the series from the rest of the TDS staff tomorrow.