The Houston Rockets open the playoffs tonight against the Utah Jazz tonight at Toyota Center. Both teams come in red-hot since the All-Star break and feature the top two records during that time frame.
Last year, these two teams met in the second round and the Rockets won 4-1. However, the teams look a little different than they did at this stage last season. For one, Houston is without Trevor Ariza and its cadre of veteran post-deadline buyouts. This season, they have a couple of veteran pre-deadline buyouts, Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried, along with Iman Shumpert and Danuel House Jr.
The Jazz look different too. Utah missed Ricky Rubio for its entire series against Houston last season, but the Spanish guard will be available for this series. Meanwhile, the Jazz added former Jazz sharpshooter and now current Jazz sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Houston’s best defense for combating Korver’s presence will be to attack him on the other end of the floor to try to make him unplayable.
Speaking of making players unplayable, that’s what Houston was able to do against Rudy Gobert last season, and Derrick Favors to a lesser extent. Those two are a huge part of Utah’s identity on both ends, and the guess here is that the Jazz have been scheming for a way to keep them relevant in this series even if Houston has James Harden and Chris Paul attack them over and over.
Finally, it’s unlikely that Donovan Mitchell will perform as poorly as he did in the West semifinals last season. In that series, the Jazz only had one day off in between knocking off the Thunder and heading to Houston for Game 1. Mitchell struggled in the series, especially against the length of Ariza. His shot 36% from the field and 25% from deep. This season, he shot 43% from the field and 36% from deep. How Mitchell goes is going to determine a lot about how this series unfolds.
Series prediction: Jazz in 6
Tip-off is at 8:30pm CT on TNT