The Utah Jazz have been without starting shooting guard Alec Burks for what seems like eternity. I worry for Craig Bolerjack, when last did he shout out the word "Houdini?" While it hasn't been as long as the Burks absence (last game was December 22nd), the Houston Rockets have been without some good players too. Clint Capela has been gone since February 11th. Kostas Papanikolaou has been in and out of the lineup with injuries since February 21st. And this Dwight Howard character has been out since January 23rd. While Capela isn't a world beater, and The Pap smear is a noted Jazz-killer, Dwight was supposed to be the 2nd best player for this Houston club.
Without him they really seemed to have taken off. Without him for 36 of their 63 games this season the Rockets are 4th in the West and winning 67% of their games. The obvious person to highlight is shooting guard, and MVP candidate, James Harden. (Sidebar: The Thunder scouting department is really great -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Harden all taken in quick succession. All of them great players.)
Harden is averaging 27.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.1 apg, 1.9 spg, and is shooting 37.7% from downtown despite shooting 7 threes a game, and he gets to the free throw line 9.6 times a game. He is a wrecking ball on offense. But we've seen lots of players come and go in this league, put up great numbers on bad teams, and go no where. This is a rockets team that is staying with the best teams in the West -- and again, no Dwight Howard.
When scouting the Rockets you have to dig deep to find out who amongst them are really helping the team win right now. If you look at just their numbers for March, where they are only 3-3, you see some new names to worry about.
Okay, so Harden in March is even more dangerous, even if his three point shooting as cooled a bit. But it's not just him who is putting in work.
Patrick Beverley is small, fast, and can shoot. He will be a challenge for Dante Exum to check because he plays off the ball quite a bit. In March is does a little of everything out there on the court.
- Trevor Ariza is in a shooting slump from outside, but the last time these two teams played the Jazz couldn't close out for their lives. If Gordon Hayward does not play tonight someone else is going to get all kinda of locked up on offense . . . it could be a tough night for Rodney Hood.
- Terrence Jones is a stretch big of sorts, he takes threes, and makes some of them. His rebounding and scoring this last month make him Memo-like in some ways, but he is more athletic.
- Jason Terry is coming off the bench to make all of the shots. Good luck Trey Burke.
Corey Brewer would start for our team, but on this one he comes off the bench and spreads the floor while playing defense. It's funny to see where he is now as a player compared to where he was back in college.
- Josh Smith doesn't start either, and that somewhat limits how crazy he can get. We want to encourage him taking threes and breaking out of the gameplan. He's a more versatile, more athletic version of Trevor Booker at this stage of the game, instead of the near-max player he used to be with his potential when he was in his early 20s.
- Donatas Motiejunas has filled in as best he could for Dwight, starting each game this month. He's not a double-double player, but he is pretty solid when open. So, you know, don't leave him open.
Personally, the main point of attack will be against our less-than-super-deep wings. Ariza, Brewer, and company can spot up and make us pay -- which is all that Papanikolaou did in that first game months ago. James Harden will be able to get inside and it will be up to Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert to make him pass it out, and not go all the way to the line. Elijah Millsap and Joe Ingles will have their hands full tonight, for sure.
Houston wants to play *their* game, and it has been a pretty smart gameplan with all the injuries they have had to deal with this season. They recently beat the Phoenix Suns (x2), Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, and the Denver Nuggets. That's winning 14 of their last 21 games (2 wins for every 3 played). Their losses during this time have been to the Detroit Pistons, Portland Trail Blazers (x2), Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, and Memphis Grizzlies.
They are hardened with the teams they've recently fought hard against. And the qualities of the teams they are beating are generally accepted to be "better" teams than the Jazz. The Jazz of March aren't the same team as the Jazz of earlier in the season. Utah is a defensive juggernaut, and Houston is really on fire from offense. (Didn't you read the Downbeat today?)
Hopefully it's not ugly early, with Houston hitting open threes and getting to the line at will. I have PTSD from those UTA @ HOU games over the last few seasons. We know a little more about them now, and while they've been getting some nice production from their forwards of late, our bigs should dominate. And I would love to see our defense swallow them up.
We'll see. The game tips off at 7:00 p.m. MT. GO JAZZ!