SALT LAKE CITY — After everything that happened to ensure the Utah Jazz would face the Houston Rockets — crazy comeback after crazy buzzer-beater after crazy comeback after crazy buzzer-beater this past weekend — Rudy Gobert came away convinced that this first-round pairing was meant to be.
"The basketball gods wanted us to play Houston," he said after Friday's practice, perhaps only half-jokingly.
Though this seems to be a particularly tough matchup for the Jazz, maybe Utah fans can glean some hope out of the fact that odds were defied to pair these longtime playoff rivals against one another.
Hope within the Jazz community might be all they get, though.
National pundits are predicting the Jazz to win a couple of games at best in the best-of-seven series and for Houston to make quick work of Utah at worst.
Even Raja Bell, the two-time Jazz player who now works as an analyst for CBS, has the Rockets advancing in his bracket. Then again, his nine cohorts at the national news organization are also all on the Houston bandwagon.
Basketball writers from the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Bleacher Report and The Athletic are all picking the Rockets to jettison the Jazz from the first round as well.
If the Jazz were expecting a swell of support to carry them to a potential Western Conference semifinal showdown with the back-to-back defending champion Golden State Warriors, well, Utah, we have a problem.
(If it makes you feel better, the Jazz are smarter than to rely on that strategy.)
NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals
No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
- Game 1: Sunday, 7:30 p.m. at Houston, ATTSN/TNT
- Game 2: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at Houston, ATTSN/TNT
- Game 3: Saturday, April 20, 8:30 p.m. at Salt Lake City, ATTSN/ESPN
- Game 4: Monday, April 22, 8:30 p.m. at Salt Lake City, ATTSN/TNT
- Game 5: Wednesday, April 24, TBD, at Houston, TBD, if necessary
- Game 6: Friday, April 26, TBD at Salt Lake City, TBD, if necessary
- Game 7: Sunday, April 28, TBD at Houston, TBD, if necessary
Though we've already spoiled their picks without an appropriate alert, here is how some national media members see the Jazz-Rockets series:
"The Jazz can play defense well enough to muck up the series against Houston and keep things close," Sean Deveney wrote. "But they don't have the finishing ability that the Rockets have. This is a bad matchup for the Jazz."
Deveney did say people shouldn't overlook the Jazz, winners of 18 of 24 who boast the No. 1 defense, but he isn't convinced Utah can overcome James Harden & Co.
Prediction: Rockets over Jazz, 4-2
"A battle of elite offense in Houston vs elite defense in Utah will make for quite the spectacle in the middle of the West," Elizabeth Swinton wrote. "It is also a matchup of the league’s two hottest teams, as the Rockets and Jazz hold the NBA’s best and second-best record and net rating since the All-Star break, respectively."
The grudge match could swing Utah's way if the Jazz can contain Houston's potent 3-point attack and limit Harden and Chris Paul in their mid-range danger zone.
Good news? This writer didn't pick against the Jazz. Then again, she didn't pick either team.
Prediction: "This series is near the top in what’s expected to be a competitive and thrilling matchup."
While everybody is focusing on Harden and Paul for the Rockets and Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for the Jazz — and for good reason — ESPN's Tim McMahon points out that Joe Ingles' jumper could play a key factor.
"The Jazz need Ingles to be a scoring threat to have a shot to beat the Rockets," McMahon wrote. "It's not a coincidence that Ingles had a career night — 27 points, 7-of-9 from 3-point range — in Utah's lone win over the Rockets in last year's West semifinals. He averaged 14.5 points and shot 58.3 percent on 3s in the Jazz's two wins over the Rockets this season, compared to 8.0 points on 33 percent long-range shooting in Utah's two losses to Houston."
Prediction: ESPN's BPI odds pick the Rockets 56 percent to 44 percent.
Before Jazz fans pile on Bell, who used to be one of their own, none of the 10 NBA experts picked Utah to upset the Rockets in the first round. Not that it matters anyway. The group all have the Warriors cruising to a three-peat.
Prediction: Rockets over Jazz.
"Just like last season, the Jazz shifted to overdrive once the calendar flipped. No one played better defense in 2019, and only two teams had higher net ratings," Zach Buckley wrote. "But the basketball gods didn't shine on Salt Lake City when setting this matchup."
"The Jazz struggle finding consistent scoring around Donovan Mitchell, and it's too much to ask the sophomore to go toe-to-toe with back-to-back scoring champ James Harden," Buckley continued. "Utah has looked like a second-round squad for the past four months, but the seed scrambling on the final night took that off the table."
Gobert would beg to differ.
Prediction: Rockets over Jazz, 4-1
"Matchups matter for every team, and the Rockets are a bad one for almost everyone. But at the end of the day, this (Jazz) team is still in need of a mini-makeover if it wants to do more than dominate the regular season," Michael Pena wrote, suggesting that the proposed trade for Mike Conley would've helped.
"All is not lost even if Utah gets swept from the first round. Their worst-case scenario is, more likely than not, merely a speed bump. But until changes are made, and harsh truths are accepted, the Jazz will enter each postseason notably inferior to what they are for the first 82 games."
Prediction: None4 comments on this story
Rockets beat writer Kelly Iko likes Houston's chances of taking care of business in five or six games. Two other writers from the national outlet see the Jazz stretching out to see but ultimately coming up short.
"Both of these teams are hot right now, but the playoffs are a different animal," Iko wrote. "I don’t subscribe to the idea of momentum carrying over. James Harden might just prove too much for Utah to handle, Patrick Beverley’s advice notwithstanding."
Prediction: Rockets over Jazz, 4-1/4-2