Overview: Just like last year the Jazz are the No. 4 seed thanks to winning the Northwest Division. And just like last year, the Rockets have the homecourt advantage thanks to a slightly better regular season record despite officially being the fifth seed.
But this year will be a bit different, thanks to the Rockets only having half of their All-Stars available. Yao Ming's injury makes this a different Houston team than the one that the Jazz beat in seven games last year. It both adds more pressure on remaining star Tracy McGrady, who will be asked to do even more, while taking some pressure off him, since the Rockets have a built-in excuse for losing should that happen.
McGrady, for all his All-Star appearances and his scoring titles and all-around outstanding play over the years, has never won a playoff series. People don't let him forget that fact, either. His tough luck in the postseason could continue, too. Even though the Rockets will get to play as many as four games in the comfort of the Toyota Center, they are still the underdogs in this series.
While McGrady will be the focal point, of the series for Houston, he actually has a deeper cast around him this year. Rookies Luis Scola (10.3 ppg), Carl Landry (8.3 ppg) and Aaron Brooks (5.1 ppg) have given new coach Rick Adelman some young legs and energy. Veterans Shane Battier, Bobby Jackson and Dikembe Mutombo will help McGrady in the leadership area. One of the biggest question marks for Houston is the health of point guard Rafer Alston, who had his best season (13.1 ppg), but has missed time of late with a strained hamstring.Utah, meanwhile, earned valuable playoff experience in getting to the Western Conference finals last season. Mehmet Okur's offense should be better in this series than it was last year when he had to expend a great deal of energy on defending Yao. Deron Williams (19 ppg, 10.6 apg) and Carlos Boozer (21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg) both averaged double-doubles. Utah had a huge advantage off the bench last season in beating the Rockets and that could again be a key.
Prediction: Look for the Jazz to split in Houston for the first two games and then take care of business at home. Jazz in six.
Season series: Jazz won, 2-1
Today at Rockets, 7:30 p.m.
Monday at Rockets, 7:30 p.m.
Thursday at Jazz, 8:30 p.m.
April 26 at Jazz, 8:30 p.m.
April 29 at Rockets, TBA *
May 2 at Utah, TBA *
* if necessary
E-mail: [email protected]