By Mark Milligan Jr
Sept 25, 2018
The West is a gauntlet. That much we know. Golden State is the team to beat and everyone else will be scratching and clawing over each other to rise to the top. Very few teams are sitting this season out and at least two or three teams that deserve to be in the playoffs will be vacationing early.
So how good are the Jazz? Good. Very good, in fact. But so is everyone else. This season will depend on everything from talent to luck, including every variable the opposition has to offer. But that also means that for each foe, the road to victory must pass through Utah as well. In this series, we take a look at how the best teams in the West size up against Utah.
See head-to-head series previews for L.A. Lakers & Oklahoma City Thunder
Coming soon: Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans, & Boston Celtics
Widely considered the best team not from Golden State are the Rockets. It’s easy to see why. They led the league in the regular season with 65 wins (a full seven games better than the Warriors). Not only did they hand the Jazz a gentleman’s sweep in round two of the playoffs, they even took Golden State to a 3-2 Western Conference Finals series before Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury late in Game 5. If not for that, we could easily have been watching James Harden and CP3 holding that coveted trophy over their smug heads.
Will the Rockets be the same unstoppable force they were last year? Not likely. At least not to the same degree. They lost two of their best defensive players this offseason, including their sharp-shooting starter, Trevor Ariza, and key reserve Luc Mbah a Moute. That’s a significant loss as it is. But then the general manager, Daryl Morey, tried to replace what he’d lost by signing Carmelo Anthony.
If you read my piece on the Oklahoma City Thunder, you already know what I think of Anthony. Just as I mentioned before about how OKC improved simply by letting Melo walk (that ol’ “addition by subtraction” move that Jazz fans witnessed with Enes Kanter), the Rockets did the exact opposite by signing him. (Subtraction by addition?) Sure, he can still put up points on occasion, but usually at the cost of team efficiency and certainly not well enough to make up for his (s)lack on defense. Melo was simply never built to play in a high-tempo, pass-heavy offense like Mike D’Antoni runs. Which brings up an entirely different Melo problem for Houston. D’Antoni and Anthony simply don’t like each other. How is that going to fare behind the scenes? I can’t imagine rainbows in that locker room any time soon.
So, no. The Rockets will not be invincible this season. They are now a flawed team that the Jazz can compete with. You could easily convince me that the Rockets signing Melo (as well as losing Ariza and Mbah a Moute) was the Utah Jazz’s greatest acquisition this offseason. But make no mistake, the Rockets will still be one of the best teams in the league with star power, a top tier offense, and a solid supporting cast around Harden, Paul, and Capela.
1) Ricky Rubio vs Chris Paul
Lest we forget, the Jazz were without their starting point guard during the Rockets series. Just as losing Chris Paul was likely the biggest factor in the Rockets losing to Golden State, the Jazz losing Rubio to a hamstring injury in game 6 of the OKC series was probably the biggest factor in the Jazz getting beaten by the Rockets so handily. Realize, Utah was starting an entirely rookie backcourt with Donovan Mitchell and Royce O’Neale in the 2nd round of the playoffs, and against two future Hall-of-Famers no less! Having Rubio back will be a major factor for Utah if he can continue playing as he did post-All-Star break.
2) Dante Exum vs James Harden
I’m sure everyone expected me to say Donovan Mitchell, but Exum proved to be the closest thing to a Harden-stopper as exists in this dimension. His length, lateral quickness, and lock-down defense held Harden to only 2 points on 0-for-6 shooting during the 22 minutes in which Dante Exum was his primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Allow me to break that stat down. James Harden could only get off six shots in 22 minutes, and when he did attempt them, he missed every single one. It’s a small sample size, but if Dante can continue at even close to that level over an extended period, the Jazz will have the Rockets scrambling for a new offensive game plan.
Keys to Victory
Defensive Key – Run’em Off the Three
It’s no secret that Houston’s weapon of choice is the 3-pointer. Simply put, they will heave as many threes as they possibly can. In the 2016-17 season, they broke the record for 3-pointers made, and then broke their own record the very next year, hitting a total of 1,184.
However, hitting a lot of threes doesn’t necessarily mean that they are accurate. As a team, they shot 36.2 percent from deep during the regular season. That’s a respectable number, but it was only good for 14th in the league. Still, by taking away the three, Houston will have to choose between inefficient mid-range shots or challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim (a decision most players end up regretting).
Lastly, it might feel like our defense struggled against Houston, but a closer look at the numbers shows that our defense held Houston to their average or below. The problem wasn’t in Utah’s defense, but that the Jazz struggled to score against Houston’s 6th-ranked defense. In the only game that Utah won during the playoff series, they scored 116 points. However, they averaged only 94.3 points in their losses. Figuring out how to score against the Rockets will be the primary factor, which brings us to our offensive key.
Offensive Key – Make Threes & Melo Out
Houston has had an elite offense for a few years now, but it was their improvement on the other end of the court that helped them become so deadly last season. Their defensive rating went from 106.4 in 2016-17 to 103.8 only a season later. To put that into perspective, the Rockets leaped from being 18th to being the 6th best defensive team in the league. A lot of that had to do with their two best perimeter defenders, Ariza and Mbah a Moute, who are no longer with the team. Good outside shots will present themselves, so if Utah can hit their open shots from deep, they’ll be making life a lot easier on themselves.
In addition, let’s not forget about Carmelo. The rest of the league was impressed when Quinn and company defeated the Thunder, despite them having three stars. However, it was (at least in part) because of one of those stars that Utah found their greatest advantage. Play after play, the Jazz attacked Anthony, and play after play, it paid off until Utah ended OKC’s season. The Jazz can simply play it back.
Game 1: Jazz @ Rockets (Oct 24)
In only the Jazz’s fourth regular season game, they will be visiting the Toyota Center in Houston. Both the Jazz and the Rockets will be coming off at least a day of rest. I am tempted to give the edge to Houston, being they’re the home team. However, their team will still be trying to figure out how to play together. In contrast, Utah is running the same team back as last season. I also can’t help but think that the Rockets will be overly confident after having defeated us in the playoffs only a few short months ago.
Jazz by 3
Game 2: Rockets @ Jazz (Dec 6)
At this point in the season, injuries will have begun to affect at least one of these two teams. Being so evenly matched, that will likely have a lot to say in the result. However, both teams will again be coming off at least one day of rest. The difference this time is that Vivant Smart Home Arena will be roaring.
Jazz by 6
Game 3: Jazz @ Rockets (Dec 17)
Less than two weeks after having tasted defeat at the hands of Utah, Houston will be out for blood, and on their home floor, no less. This will be a tough night for Jazz fans.
Rockets by 7
Game 4: Rockets @ Jazz (Feb 2)
Both teams will be on the wrong end of a back-to-back, so it will be a game of endurance. However, not only will the Jazz be playing at home, but they are also the deeper team. Not to mention, Utah will have only played the lowly Atlanta Hawks the night before. (Sorry, Atlanta.) Houston, on the other hand, will have just completed an offensive foot race with Denver.
Jazz by 6
*All statistics via BasketballReference.com unless otherwise noted.