SALT LAKE CITY — No team gave the Utah Jazz more trouble this year than the Houston Rockets, except perhaps the Atlanta Hawks. Just kidding. The lowly Hawks did beat the Jazz twice during the regular season, but the Rockets beat the Jazz four times and by substantial margins each time.
The Rockets won the four regular-season meetings by double-digit margins and an average of 17.5 points. The two games in Houston were by 27 and 21 points, respectively, while the two games at Vivint Arena were both by 11 points.
However, like their regular-season losses to Oklahoma City, three came early in the season before New Year’s and one came with Rudy Gobert out with a knee injury in December.
When you compare the two teams, the Rockets come out on top with a better guardline and a stronger bench, but the Jazz overcame a similar mismatch to win the Oklahoma City series in six games.
Here’s how the Jazz and Rockets stack up, heading into their best-of-seven series:
The Jazz are a different team with Rudy Gobert manning the middle as was proven when the team struggled with him out for 26 games with injuries this season as well as when he was in foul trouble, like in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. Gobert has put up similar numbers to last year (13.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 2.3 blocks), but his defense has been more stifling than ever this season.
Houston’s Clint Capela, the fourth-year player out of Switzerland, has nearly identical numbers to Gobert (13.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 1.85 blocks), but at 6-10, 240 pounds, isn’t the defensive presence that Gobert is.
For Houston, Ryan Anderson isn’t your conventional power forward, but more of a prototypical “stretch four” with his ability to score from anywhere on the floor. The 6-10, 240-pounder from Cal led the NBA’s most prolific 3-point shooting team with a 38.6 percent average, making two per game from long range. Trevor Ariza, a 13-year veteran who won a ring with the Los Angeles Lakers, averaged 11.7 ppg during the regular season and made 2.5 3-pointers per game.
The Jazz forward duo of Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles have been a complementary pair with Favors mostly patrolling the paint (7.2 rebounds per game), while Ingles is one of the top 3-point shooting players in the NBA (2.5 per game, 44.0 percent).
The Rockets have the likely MVP in James Harden, while the Jazz have a guy who was greeted with chants of M-V-P Friday night on his way to a spectacular 38-point night in Donovan Mitchell.
The Jazz rookie still has a ways to go to reach the level of Harden, the ninth-year player out of Arizona State who averaged 30.4 points this year as well as 8.8 assists per game. Harden’s backcourt mate is Chris Paul, another All-Star-caliber guard who joined the team from the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason. Paul had to sit out 24 games with injuries, but was effective in the Rockets’ lineup when he was healthy, averaging 18.6 points, 7.9 assists on 46 percent shooting (38 percent from 3-point range).
Mitchell just continues to get better and is a different player than the one the Rockets saw in the early season. In the playoffs, he has taken it to another level averaging 28.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game on 46.2 percent shooting. His backcourt mate, Ricky Rubio, has come on strong in the second half of the season and averaged 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.8 assists before going down with a hamstring injury early in Friday’s Game 6. The Jazz will be a much better team the sooner he can return to the lineup.
In Eric Gordon, the Rockets have the 2016-17 NBA Sixth Man of the Year and possible winner this year, a guard who averaged 18.0 points per game with 3.2 3-pointers per game on 36 percent shooting from behind the arc. He filled in as a starter for 30 games when Paul was injured earlier in the season. P.J. Tucker, the only Rocket to play in all 82 games, is known more for his defensive abilities and rebounding (5.6 rpg) than his scoring (6.1 ppg), while Luc Mbah a Moute, a former starter for the Clippers, has been a big help off the bench when he’s been healthy. Ex-Jazzman Joe Johnson was playing 20-plus minutes per night when he first joined Houston in February, but he only played briefly in three playoff games against Minnesota.
The Jazz have relied heavily on Jae Crowder ever since he was acquired in February, using him as their first player off the bench and for 27.6 minutes per game. Crowder averages 11.5 per game but shoots a little too much at times (38.1 from the field, 31.6 from 3-point range). Rookie Royce O’Neale has moved from end of the bench to become a valuable contributor with strong defense and an efficient offensive game. Dante Exum has been inconsistent since returning from injury and could be supplanted by veteran Alec Burks, who saw increased minutes in the Game 6 win. Jonas Jerebko is good for a solid 15 minutes per night.
Utah’s Quin Snyder has shown his creative coaching ability all season, but particularly over the last half of the season when the Jazz finished 29-6 and in the playoffs. But Houston’s Mike D’Antoni is no slouch, having coached 565 wins for five franchises over 14 seasons with two NBA coach-of-the-year awards, including last season with the Rockets.
The Jazz are unsure about the status of Rubio, who reportedly could miss up to 10 days according to an ESPN report Saturday. Rubio left Friday’s game with a hamstring injury that has bothered him off and on, most recently in late March when he missed a game at Memphis. Otherwise the Jazz are healthy with only Thabo Sefolosha out long-term with his knee injury. The Rockets have been without Luc Mbah a Moute for the entire postseason since he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the second-to-last game of the regular season, but he should be ready for the Utah series as early as Sunday.
The Jazz may have a nothing-to-lose attitude, having knocked off favored Oklahoma City and taking on the team with the best regular-season record. The Rockets do have the home-court advantage and appear to be on a mission this year to go all the way after their superb regular season.
It’s going to be a tough task for the Jazz to beat a 65-win team that handled them comfortably during the regular season, especially with the possibility of Rubio missing some games. If the Jazz can steal one home game, they will have made an improvement over last year when they were swept by Golden State in four double-digit margin games, but a five-game series with the Rockets prevailing looks likely.