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2018 NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets face a much different Utah Jazz team

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The Utah Jazz have been quickly evolving since the last time these two teams met.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder series, the Utah Jazz are facing a team that hasn’t had to face them in their current form. The Oklahoma City Thunder found out the hard way that the Utah team they had faced four times before December was markedly worse than the team they played in the first round. That difference proved to contribute to their demise as they lost 4-2 to a Utah team that played faster in pace, better on defense, and had a superstar in the making, Donovan Mitchell. The Houston Rockets would be wise to learn from their brethren to the north and avoid their missteps.

The Houston Rockets, the NBA’s best team in the regular season, has been as close as a team can be to a living buzzsaw as they have cut through the league’s best, racking up 64 wins in the regular season and dominating almost every team that they faced. That domination included the Utah Jazz which lost to the Houston Rockets three times before the end of December was even reached. The Houston Rockets only faced the Utah Jazz once in their current form when Utah was without Raul Neto and Dante Exum and shortly after Utah acquired Jae Crowder. The Rockets took advantage of Utah’s adjustment period to life without Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson while lacking point guard depth beating Utah 96-85.

Over the season, the Utah Jazz were basically the basketball equivalent to a doormat when they faced the Houston Rockets. James Harden has averaged 34 points a game when facing the Utah Jazz while shooting 43% from three point land. He has averaged a +23.3 when on the court. Utah’s inability to stop Harden has put them on the wrong end of two different blowouts.

Utah Jazz vs Houston Rockets - February 26th

The last game of the season series between these two teams, we were able to get a slight preview of what a matchup could look like. Both teams were dealing with injuries with Houston missing Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela. The Utah Jazz were missing Raul Neto, Dante Exum, and were still dealing with the after effects of trading Rodney Hood, releasing Joe Johnson, and acquiring Jae Crowder.

In that game, Donovan Mitchell had only 16 points on 5 of 15 shooting while shooting 1 of 9 from three. The kind of game Ben Simmons stans love to pounce on in order to show that Donovan Mitchell is nothing but a volume scorer. Donovan Mitchell has only had one game all season where he took that many threes and shot a lower percentage: March 20th against the juggernaut Atlanta Hawks.

Meanwhile Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder combined to shoot 2 of 14 from outside. Joe Ingles didn’t have any other impact on the game. He only had 3 rebounds and 3 assists in a game that Rubio only played 26 minutes. Most will remember that Ricky Rubio was working his way back into the rotation after suffering—you’ll never guess what—a hamstring injury. Rubio has been dealing with that nagging injury since February.

On the other side of the basketball, the Houston Rockets were adjusting to a shortened bench as they were dealing with injuries and sicknesses. James Harden had 26 points on a very efficient 13 shots and got to the line a whopping 12 times. Chris Paul had a very Ricky Rubio-esque stat line of 15 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals. Jazz killer extraordinaire Luc Mbah a Moute added 17 points.

While the final score of that game makes it look like the Houston Rockets controlled the game from beginning to end, winning 96-85, the Utah Jazz actually went to halftime with a 44-39 lead. The Utah Jazz did that despite Ricky Rubio not playing his best and Donovan Mitchell having a Spida-man moment. So how did Utah control the game until halftime? Well, the reason should give Utah Jazz fans hope.

Royce O’Neale.

Before Royce O’Neale checked in, Utah was playing stiff. They were manufacturing points prior to his sub much like Tesla manufactures Model 3s: slow, robotic, and riddled with frequent breakdowns. Then Royce O’Neale came in. If you look at Royce O’Neale’s stat line it doesn’t jump out at you (2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists), but his effort changed the course of the first half. He was a pest on defense, bothering James Harden and holding him to 0-3 shooting from beyond the arc. Meanwhile his hustle and energy breathed life into a slow moving Utah Jazz offense. Utah picked up the tempo, got points in transition, and sped up the game. While Utah went on a much larger run after he checked out, thanks to Jonas Jerebko’s hustle, Jae Crowder’s crazy, and Rudy Gobert’s perfect shooting half, Royce O’Neale changed the course of that game. That’s a big plot point for this upcoming playoff series, especially with the news that Ricky Rubio will be out of commission due to his hamstring injury.

So what happened in the second half?

The Houston Rockets adjusted to Utah’s role players going off. The strength of the team may be the team, but Utah’s role players cannot sustain success if Donovan Mitchell is having a subpar game. Donovan Mitchell is the lifeblood of this team. His success is necessary for wins. Ricky Rubio had a rough second half, Joe Ingles never found his rhythm, bad Jae Crowder made an appearance, and the Houston Rockets clamped down on defense to capitalize on Utah’s lack of playmakers with Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell struggling to make up for Ricky Rubio.

It’s such a small sample size with a lot of additional variables missing then that are added to the equation now. The Houston Rockets would be crazy to assume they can apply the same basketball theorems learned from playing the Jazz in the regular season to this series. The Utah Jazz however have plenty of game film on this current Houston Rockets squad from when they’ve faced them.

Moving forward

So what can the Utah Jazz glean from this one game of having their current squad?

With the news that Ricky Rubio will be out for Game 1 and possibly weeks after, Royce O’Neale just became the most important person in the Utah Jazz’s success in this series. Quin Snyder will most likely do something completely unheard of, throw two rookie guards into the fire and start both of them against the best team in the NBA in the playoffs. Royce O’Neale is going to have to guard presumably the NBA’s MVP. His performance in this series is going to mean the difference between a Jazz upset or a sweep.

Joe Ingles is going to have to spell Ricky Rubio for this series. While Royce O’Neale will be tasked with replacing Ricky Rubio’s defense and energy, Joe Ingles will have to replace Ricky Rubio’s playmaking. Joe Ingles has shown the ability to get to double digit assists. If Joe Ingles averages 7 or more assists for this series, the Utah Jazz will have pushed the Houston Rockets to Game 6 or Game 7.

For the Utah Jazz to have a chance in this series, Donovan Mitchell has to have the series of a lifetime just one series after he had the series of a lifetime. If the Utah Jazz push the Houston Rockets to six or seven games, it will mean Donovan Mitchell has entered undisputed Superstar territory. Against Oklahoma City he had to get his as the focus of the Thunder’s defensive game plan while being guarded by Corey Brewer, Russell Westbrook, and Paul George. Against the Houston Rockets, the degree of difficulty will be increased as Luc Mbah a Moute is going to provide Donovan with 48 minutes of hell.

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz showed that even if their offense is struggling, their elite defense can keep them within striking distance. Against Houston, that immovable defense is going to meet an unstoppable offense. It’s the ultimate game of opposites. Because of that defense one would assume that Utah is going to want to slow the game down against the Rockets, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz averaged a pace of almost 100 possessions a game. That’s good for 5th in the playoffs and about 3 possessions faster a game than the Houston Rockets in the playoffs. If Houston plays fast, they gain no advantages.

So as we approach Game 1 of this series, it’s important to note, that we know very little of how these two teams with react when combined on the court together. The Utah Jazz could fizzle out without Ricky Rubio for an entire series. The Houston Rockets could explode while taking advantage of Utah’s lack of experience in the playoffs, something OKC failed to do. Or Utah’s defense could cancel out any advantage and bring the game down to Utah’s terms.

Just like the OKC series, we’ll learn a lot after that Game 1 and how this series could go. In the meantime, we only have 48 minutes of limited action from February to extrapolate an entire playoff series from. For Jazz fans, they hope they see more of the first 24 minutes than the final 24 minutes.