The Utah Jazz defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. For a team that lost their supposed franchise face in the summer and wasn’t even favored to make the playoffs, that’s pretty impressive. This gives them the privilege of facing the Houston Rockets, the team with the overall best record in the league, in the 2nd round.
The Jazz have a pretty long playoff history against the Rockets, with 6 previous matchups. This includes “The Shot” back in 1997.
But what are the chances of a playoff series victory for the Jazz in the 2018 matchup? FiveThirtyEight currently only gives Utah a 24% chance of winning this series. While that might not sound great, that’s actually pretty impressive considering how well the Rockets have played this year.
So what might the 5 keys for a Jazz victory be in this series?
1. Donovan Mitchell steps up in Ricky Rubio’s absence
With Ricky Rubio out for several games in this series, Mitchell will carry an even bigger load than normal. Fortunately, Donovan’s averages are all higher when Rubio has been off the floor this past year. He might have to reach even greater heights if the Jazz are to have a shot in this series. As Utah’s most important offensive player, he’s going to have to continue the stellar play he presented in the Thunder series. So far in the playoffs, Spida has averaged 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. While a lot to ask of a rookie, the Jazz might need even more in every game this series.
2. Joe Ingles lights it up
Paul George was a brutal matchup for Joe Ingles and it showed in the first couple games of the series. His averages were all down compared to his regular season numbers. He only scored 16 points total in games 1 and 2 and also had a combined 4 rebounds and 3 assists. He got it back together for the rest of the series and was a huge contributor in each of the following wins. Joe is going to have to be big in this series for Utah to have success. Trevor Ariza is a good defender, but he’s not Paul George good. Hopefully Ingles takes advantage of that not only in his shooting, but being more involved as a rebounder and pick and roll ball handler.
3. Derrick Favors feasts
The Houston Rockets starting Power Forward the last half of the season was P.J. Tucker. He’s a nice player and has had a good year for the Rockets, but he’s 6’6. Houston likes to stretch the floor with him and Ryan Anderson as their PF’s, but neither of these really put the power in power forward. Derrick Favors does. When Steven Adams got into foul trouble in Game 2, Favs played a huge role by putting up 20 points and 16 rebounds. Eight of those rebounds were on the offensive end. Utah’s path to victory in this series would certainly include similar performances from Favors. He needs to play well in order for the Jazz to force their will on the Rockets, rather than the other way around.
4. Rudy Gobert and the Jazz defense forces Houston’s stars into bad games
The Jazz played a so-called super team and big 3 in the first round (Although I would argue Steven Adams is the true member of that big 3 and not Carmelo Anthony). The Jazz defense made it so their stars had to have massive games in order to win. In their wins, Paul George averaged 35 points and 7.5 rebounds on 54% from the field and 59% from 3. In their losses those numbers come down to 19.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on 32% from the field and 25% from 3. The numbers are similar for Russell Westbrook. In wins, he averaged 37 points and 14 rebounds on 42% FG and 39% from 3. In losses, he averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds on 38% FG and 24% from 3. The Jazz were able to contain the stars more often than not, thanks in large part to Rudy Gobert’s dominance at the rim. This needs to continue in round 2, but the faces change from Russ and PG to James Harden and Chris Paul.
5. Utah’s bench provides a scoring punch
With Ricky Rubio out, Utah’s deep bench gets thinner. Rubio had been average just short of 17 points a game in the playoffs, and every single one of those points need to be made up somewhere. The starters can certainly pick up some of that slack, but not all of it. The Jazz will absolutely need good minutes and scoring from their bench to win this series. Will Jae Crowder’s 3 point shot be falling? Will Dante Exum have a bounce back in this series and give Utah a boost? Can Alec Burks provide a few decent minutes like he did in Game 6? This can change game-to-game, but the production has to be there from someone.
In the end, the Rockets are favored to win this series for a reason. That being said, Utah has the talent and weapons to make this a difficult series. If points 1-5 ring true, then Utah might be in a position to shock the world and find themselves in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2007. If not, I am confident in saying that the Jazz will improve upon last year’s sweep at the hands of the eventual-champs Golden State Warriors.
Either way, we get to see more Utah Jazz playoff basketball from one of the most enjoyable Jazz squads in a long time. And they are only getting better.