by Daniel Olsen
Last year the Jazz upset the Oklahoma City Thunder, but things headed south when they flew south to Houston.
This year the Jazz survived a brutal first half of the season better than the previous year but didn’t quite hit the same fever pitch as their 29-6 finish last year. That’s ok because no team in history has made that big of a comeback from lottery bound to the 5 seed. The Jazz will take a 24-11 finish if it gets them to the half century win total and a chance to make some noise in the playoffs.
It took a lot of crazy games on the last night of the regular season, but after Sacramento and Minnesota both gave up huge leads to Portland and Denver respectively, the Jazz earned a date with a team that gave them fits in the playoffs last year.
The Houston Rockets have been doing well thanks to nightly historic MVP performances by James Harden. The Jazz have split the season with Houston with both teams splitting on their home courts.
On defense, it was hard for the Jazz to keep up with the fast paced D’Antoni offense and the crazy switching defense caused a lot of turnovers. Fans will point to the refs and James Harden for the outcome of the game but the foul shots were distributed evenly throughout the playoffs. Had Donovan finished game 5 healthy, or had Rubio had been healthy, perhaps the Jazz would have been able to make the series more interesting. Instead, the lone win they snagged was in Houston.
Now it’s 2019 and both teams are almost the same. Houston did lose Trevor Ariza but the Jazz basically brought the whole band back together. How will it all shake up? It all depends on matchups.
Key Matchup: Donovan Mitchell vs James Harden
James Harden is the reigning MVP. Donovan is the reigning dunk champ. Well, as of February that title now belongs to Hamidou Diallo of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but that’s besides the point. Donovan was a colorful analyst of the 2019 Dunk Contest at NBA All-Star weekend in Charlotte.
James Harden is as strong as an ox. This makes him a surprisingly good isolation defender. Okay, James Harden and defense haven’t always been mentioned in the same breath unless the words “doesn’t play” is sandwiched in between the two but because of his strength he can even knock the wind out of big guys like Favors and Gobert. That’s what makes the switching defense so deadly.
Donovan has an indescribable offense. The way he weaves through defenses it makes his “Spida” nickname fit him well.
Donovan and Rudy were both snubbed for not making the All-Star game but a great second half of the season brought him out of his “sophomore slump”. He started trending up shorty after the New Year when he was named the Western Conference Player of the Week. He scored 46 twice this year which makes him just the 15th second year player to do so. The numbers get even more impressive when you look at his total number of 30+ point games. He is in some elite company.
Donovan really played his heart out last year vs Houston but it wasn’t enough. Expect Houston to try to take him out of the game. If he can take another step forward in this playoffs then we have ourselves a true 4 vs 5 matchup. If he fails to produce on the offensive end then the Jazz will have a famine of buckets and this will look more like a 1 vs 8 matchup.
Key Reserves: Grayson Allen vs Gerald Green
When Jhalil Okafor and Justise Winslow were struggling with foul trouble in the 2015 NCAA National Championship game it was none other than Grayson Allen who stole the show. This season there is a lot of chatter that Grayson isn’t an NBA player. To be honest he didn’t “look” like a college player. He looks more like former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. See what I mean?
However, you can’t measure heart and Grayson has a lot of it. At the start of the season shots weren’t going in so the coaches gave him a lot of G-League reps that slowed the game down for him. Now he has been firing on all cylinders at just the right time. He scored a career high 23 points against Houston to match Donovan’s 23 and finished the season with 40 points against the Clippers at the Staples Center. The two battled against each other in the ACC and there was even a little back and forth between the two. Donovan told Jazz management that he hated playing against Grayson but would love to play with him when the franchise had an important decision to make with the 21st pick of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Grayson might be just the player the Jazz needs to shine in the playoffs. He’s never been in a game like this before at this level so it will be interesting to see how much the Jazz call his number. He hasn’t necessarily been the sixth man for most of the year but he has been the 12th man who worked so hard that things are trending up.
Gerald Green is a proven commodity off the bench so we know he will get his. The question is whether the Jazz can get some production out of an unexpected source in Grayson. If they do to the level that he has shown lately, then watch out. The Jazz could be in this for the long haul. The issue is he probably won’t go off for 40 in the playoffs so don’t expect the Jazz to sweep the Rockets. If they do get at least double digit scoring from Grayson then they could “4-0 the Rockets in 6” as the Utah Jazz super fan ZDog would say.
Key to Offense
See the paragraph on Donovan Mitchell. Obviously the Jazz have to get others involved but it will be easier to create space if Donovan’s performance forces Houston to focus on him and make the other players beat them.
Key to Defense
” The Stifle Tower,” Rudy Gobert, has improved this year, especially offensively. He made a good outside shot in a game recently and did a nice crossover. Not bad for a guy who didn’t have much coordination going into the league. He was all limbs. He does have an “Encore” Jazz album releasing but don’t expect to see him playing the saxophone in New Orleans anytime soon.
Rudy will have to become a more mobile defender against a fast Rockets team that stretches the floor. Clint Capela gave him fits in the playoffs last year. Capela has struggled against the Jazz this year so if Rudy makes that continue then that is a huge win for the Jazz.
Vivint Arena vs Toyota Center
Ironically Shane Keisel, the Jazz fan who was banned for life for making offensive statements to Russell Westbrook, works at the Brent Brown Toyota in Orem. Perhaps Shane Keisel will becomes a Rockets fan now since their team’s facility, the Toyota Center employs him. While the Toyota slogan is “Let’s Go Places,” don’t expect Shane to go to Jazz games anytime soon.
The bottom line is the loud Jazz fans have a mental advantage in the playoffs but they might want to toe the line if they don’t want a lifetime ban like Shane got. A word to the wise: Cheering for your team is okay. Booing the other team is okay. Making racist, homophobic or any other personal jabs not related to the game of basketball? Not okay. The Jazz text line to report fan behavior is located on the Game Day section of the Utah Jazz app. Their number is (801) 901-8111.
One plus for the Jazz is their city jerseys are straight fire. No seriously. When Rockets players look at the city jerseys they are basically looking into the sun. The Jazz beat Oklahoma City in Game 3 last year while wearing these babies. Unfortunately the Jazz can’t wear these every night as they have to promote their other jerseys but chalk up the city game as a win. The ultraviolet rays emitted from these hot threads will be enough to overheat the engine that launches those Rockets.