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A Rivalry Renewed: the Houston Rockets take on the Utah Jazz this weekend

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Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz have been rivals for over 30 years now. Some of the greatest players in NBA history have taken part in these games, from Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, and Karl Malone, to Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Deron Williams.

In order for that sort of sustained competition to occur, both teams have had to be good for a majority of those years, and that’s exactly what has happened. Neither squad has fallen into the lottery for an extended period over that time frame, which has led to several intense battles.

The teams have met nine times in the playoffs, with the Jazz holding a 5-4 series advantage. However, the last two series have gone to Houston. Both ended with Utah taking just a single game, but most contests have been competitive and came down to the final minutes. Tonight’s game should follow a similar script.

The last time these teams met, the Rockets were missing James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Clint Capela. Houston was expected to get crushed, but behind a remarkable 50-point performance from Eric Gordon, the Rockets escaped Salt Lake City with their best win of the season. You can bet that the Jazz haven’t forgotten that game or how Houston ended their last two seasons. Revenge will be on their minds.

In previous years, the Jazz were full of pests and annoyances like Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring, but these days it’s easy to appreciate the squad that Quin Snyder has built. Mike Conley is a proven veteran presence who has gotten off to a slow start but is still a dangerous player. Jordan Clarkson was a midseason acquisition that gives Utah some scoring punch off the bench. Joe Ingles looks like the dude you play pickup against that seems like he shouldn’t be good yet his team wins every time. Bojan Bogdanovic is one of the most underrated players in the league and has the ability to score in bunches. Royce O’Neale gave James Harden fits in the playoff series last year and has gotten even better this season.

The two cornerstones of the Jazz, of course, are All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. In Mitchell, the Jazz have their star of the present and future. Rockets fans will have to get used to seeing Mitchell dominate the league throughout the ‘20s as he gets older and better. He has refined both his shooting stroke and his floater, and the combination is absolutely lethal. Couple Mitchell with the league’s best rim protector in Rudy Gobert, and you’ve got a duo each capable of carrying a team on one end of the court. That’s a rare combination that’s even more terrifying when you consider that Mitchell is 23 years old and Gobert is 27.

The Rockets have held the key to knocking off the Jazz lately, but a huge part of that was the presence of Capela. Now, you may have heard that Capela is no longer a Rocket, and you can be sure that the Jazz (and Denver Nuggets) are ecstatic about that development. Houston instead added Robert Covington to their small ball lineup and he’s going to be a big factor in Houston’s finish this season.

Houston still has Harden and Westbrook, which gives them a chance in any game. Harden started 2020 off on the wrong foot, but he’s since found his shooting stroke again. By all counts, he’s one of the best players ever to pick up a basketball and he’s underappreciated by casual fans who wrongly believe that his entire game is predicated on free throws. Make sure you catch him live at least once before he retires. As for Westbrook, I’ve been his biggest critic, but the results speak for themselves: over the past month or so, Russ has been the best player on the Rockets by a sizable margin. If the Brodie can keep up this production and Harden plays to his usual scoring efficiency, the small ball offense may just be enough to give Houston a chance in games against teams with dominant bigs like Utah.

With the rivalry aspect as well as a there being a strong chance that these teams will meet for the third straight year in the playoffs, this is an important game that will feature a fun atmosphere at Toyota Center. With it also being Utah’s only trip to Houston in the regular season, it’s a can’t-miss contest between two of the best teams in the NBA. Get your tickets from our exclusive TDS link!!!

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