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The Utah Jazz kick off the second half of the season against the Houston Rockets

Are the Rockets even an NBA level team tonight?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz (27-9) had a fun showing at the all-star break, with Mike Conley almost edging out Steph Curry in the 3 point contest and fans feeling great about having the most representation in the all-star game. Now, it’s back to business in the second half of the season, taking on the Houston Rockets (11-24) again at home. Holding onto the league-worst 14 game losing streak, the Rockets don’t get any breaks as they are on the receiving end of a back-to-back in altitude against the league’s best team after a 20 point drubbing from the Kings. It would be shocking if last year if you heard any of these situations, wouldn’t it?

On paper, the Rockets shouldn’t be this bad. John Wall, who looks to have recovered well from his unfortunate achilles injury, has been playing well. Christian Wood looks like an early pick for MIP, thriving in his new role. The Rockets have perennial Jazz-killers Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker, as well as previously injured all-star Victor Oladipo. They were trying to rehabilitate DeMarcus Cousins, who almost looked like a basketball player this season. And a familiar Aussie friend continues to be unfulfilled, injured potential on the Rockets bench (Dante Exum, if you’re wondering).

But reality is far worse. The Rockets have 8 players confirmed to be injured or sidelined, not including Victor Oladipo, who will likely be out on this back-to-back as he continues to come back from injury, or PJ Tucker, who will no longer be part of the team as the Rockets look to trade him. Wall sat out against the Kings with a knee injury, Wood has been out for about a month with two consecutive ankle sprains, and Eric Gordon suffered a groin injury against the Kings. Former small forward starter Danuel House has been out with a knee injury, while bench players Chris Clemons, Rodions Kurucs, David Nwaba, and Dante Exum have various ailments.

Note that Jae’Sean Tate is averaging 9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game in 22 starts and 34 games played. The next best available player would probably be Sterling Brown, with 7.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game.

Game Info

When: 8PM MST

Where: Vivint Area, Salt Lake City

TV: AT&T SportsNet-Rocky Mountain, AT&T SportsNet-South West


Projected Starting Lineups

UTAH: G: Mike Conley G: Donovan Mitchell F: Bojan Bogdanovic F: Royce O’Neale C: Rudy Gobert

HOU (predicted): G: Kevin Porter Jr. (if available, Victor Oladipo) G: Kenyon Martin Jr. F: Sterling Brown F: Jae’Sean Tate C: Justin Patton

What to watch for

The Rockets’ wing rotation (aka Jae’Sean Tate)

I don’t want to trigger any bad memories for Jazz fans, but the Rockets once beat the Jazz through the sheer will of Eric Gordon alone, who dropped a career high 50 points. Victor Oladipo certainly has something to prove after turning down after turning down a 2-year, $45M extension, and the talented but troubled Kevin Porter Jr. made his Rockets debut (on a two-way contract) with an excellent 13 points, 10 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block against the Kings. If any of those three play tonight, they’re going to be the (only) main offensive threat.

But a mention must be made for Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate, who is basically their Royce O’Neale: unheralded out of college (having played with D’Angelo Russell and Keita-Bates Diop), often playing power forward and center despite being 6’4”, he played in Europe and Australia before being picked up this year. He’s been excellent defending all types of players, from Damian Lillard to Jimmy Butler, to making the right plays in the Rockets’ system, and just out-hustling other players.

There’s something to be said about playing a lineup of guys in the regular season who are all about the same height, but with wildly different strengths and abilities. The Jazz saw that with the 5-man 6’8” lineup against the Clippers - the Rockets can throw many different looks with guys all around 6’5”. That said, the likes of Ben McLemore, Kenyon Martin Jr., and Sterling Brown should scare no one. The Jazz are on fresh legs, and the Rockets are already dead tired. Knock on wood, but if this isn’t over from the first quarter, I’ll be disappointed.

The Referees

Before the All-Star break, it was clear that the Jazz weren’t playing their best ball, with a (3-3) stretch capped off with two unfortunate losses against the Pelicans and 76ers on the road. While the Jazz absolutely should have taken advantage of their opportunities instead of relying on the refs for calls, Donovan and Rudy were both (rightfully) steamed at the poor officiating. The last time this happened to the point where fines were assessed, when Rudy publicly complained and was fined a cool $15K, the referees came back even harder. In a game that was also coincidentally against the Rockets, Rudy got two quick (suspect) fouls in three minutes and then was ejected in a famous moment of Jazz history. Will the Jazz let bad officiating get into their heads?

At the same time, you do have to wonder if the refs (and the league) have it out for Utah. The NBA could promote this team like they promoted the small-market Thunder, recognizing the league-altering talent of Rudy, the dynamic play of Donovan, the awesomeness of Joe Ingles, swagger of Jordan Clarkson, and on and on, but instead there is nothing but continued straight disrespect from the media, former players, and fellow players alike. So the Jazz should embrace the villainy and play with that chip on their shoulder, keep making shots and show the league that they are only going to win the second half of this season even harder.

Go Jazz!