It’s time. 82 games has all led to this. The Utah Jazz faced a series of events with infinitesimal odds to get a first round re-match with the Houston Rockets. Last season, the Rockets knocked out the Jazz in five games in the second round. That Jazz team was riddled with injury. Donovan Mitchell was hobbling on a damaged foot. Ricky Rubio was missing entirely.
This time, Utah will be a bit healthier. Mitchell is good to go and Rubio is back. Kyle Korver could miss game one, but any absence past that would be surprising. The only expected absence for the entire series is Dante Exum, and though that could be damaging, the Jazz should be in a better position to put up a fight this go around.
When: Sunday, April 14, 2019 • 7:30 PM MDT
Where: Toyota Center • Houston, TX
Radio: 97.5 FM | 1280 AM The Zone
Dante Exum — Torn patellar tendon — OUT
Kyle Korver — Knee — QUESTIONABLE
Ricky Rubio — Quad — PROBABLE
Raul Neto — Ankle — PROBABLE
What to watch for
Who guards whom?
Someone has to at least slow down James Harden. This is where missing Exum could really hurt the Jazz. During last year’s series, Dante showed flashes of defensive brilliance shutting down the reigning MVP. It was another of those “turning the corner” moments that just hasn’t come to full fruition for the Jazz due to Exum’s injury luck. Even though Royce O’Neale won’t be starting in this series, he’s still Utah’s best perimeter defender. I would throw him at Harden.
Equally problematic is who to put on Chris Paul. Last year Paul destroyed the Jazz with death by mid-range jumper to the tune of 24.6 points per game. While Rubio has a reputation as a good defender, I haven’t been terribly impressed with his on-ball defense for most of this season. This might be a little outside the box, but I would at least try Joe Ingles on Paul.
On the other side of the coin, Trevor Ariza gave Donovan Mitchell fits in last year’s series. He’s no longer with Houston. That, combined with an improved skillset and improved health for the sophomore, should lead to a more impactful series from our friendly neighborhood Spida. Right now, Iman Shumpert and P.J. Tucker are probably Houston’s best isolation defenders, so expect to see some combination of them spending a lot of time in front of Mitchell.
Deconstructing the Stifle Tower
Last year, Houston spent large portions of games negating Rudy Gobert’s rim protection by drawing him out to guard small ball lineups. If you’ve watched the Jazz regularly, you know this can be the kryptonite to Gobert’s defensive Superman. When asked about it this week, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni acted like the Rockets would be moving away from the small ball lineups that were so effective last postseason.
I asked Coach D'Antoni if we'll see small-ball: "No, we'll have a Center. Last year we had Mbah A Moute who can give you that. We had Trevor who is longer. Now we have Austin & Shumpert, so we're little bit smaller. It'll be a stretch to think we're going with 5 smalls." #Rockets https://t.co/A1pEfP9x3y— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) April 13, 2019
If D’Antoni isn’t just playing games in the media, this sounds like good news for Gobert and, subsequently, the Jazz. The more time Houston spends with traditional bigs on the floor (like Clint Capela, Kenneth Faried and Nene) the better for Rudy. Capela has also been known to give the reigning DPOY fits occasionally, but going against him is still more advantageous for Utah than asking Gobert to float to the perimeter on an every-possession basis.