The Utah Jazz (40-24) travel to Houston to take on the Rockets (44-20) tonight in a game with post-season implications. The winner of tonight’s game will own the tiebreaker should the two teams end up with the same record at the end of the season. The Rockets took the first meeting of the season on November 9th with a 9 point victory at home and the Jazz handed the Rockets their worst loss of the season 10 days later, beating the Rockets by 19.
The Jazz (40-24) currently trail the Rockets (44-20) by 4 games for the 3rd spot in the West. This will be the start of a critical and difficult stretch of games for the Jazz: 8 of their next 11 games are on the road and their next 7 games are all against teams currently slotted to be in the playoffs. The Jazz have two full days of rest after tonight’s game before taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday which is followed by a home game against the Clippers on Monday. Both of those games also have seeding tiebreaker implications.
Utah will be short-handed once again as Derrick Favors will be out due to knee soreness. At the time of this writing, George Hill (toe) and Joe Johnson (groin strain) are questionable. Shelvin Mack, who has been out of the rotation as of late, is also out with an ankle sprain. This means it may come down to Dante Exum and Raul Neto to run the point for the Jazz should Hill be ruled out.
Strategically, the Jazz may choose to rest Johnson and Hill tonight even if they could push it and try to play. It likely makes more sense to have them closer to 100% for games that they have a higher probability of winning than trying to force it in a game they are not favored to win in the first place. Hill in particular seems like he may be dealing with pain in his injured toe for the rest of the season. It’s a tough scenario to try and navigate because the Jazz can’t afford many losses. They are only 1.5 games ahead of the Clippers for the 4 seed and home-court advantage in a 1st round match-up.
The Rockets are coming off a tough 2 point loss to the Spurs on Monday. James Harden is in the midst of an MVP race that is becoming closer as the regular season nears its end. Harden and OKC’s Russell Westbrook have been front-runners much of the season but OKC is on a losing streak and Kawhi Leonard’s performance against Harden and the Rockets on Monday has put him in the spotlight (at least for a day). Let’s not forget about LeBron James. Generally, the MVP is awarded to a player who plays for one of the top 2 seeds in their conference. Given the closeness of the race, any of those 4 player can take over the MVP spotlight temporarily with a monster game. Harden may try to do that tonight against the Jazz.
The Jazz don’t have an MVP candidate but they do have Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, and one of the league’s best defenses. Gobert is widely considered to be one of the top 3 players in the running for Defensive Player of the Year along with Leonard and Draymond Green. Hayward and Gobert also both have a shot at one of the three All-NBA teams. They may see this game against the Rockets as a chance to get additional recognition nationally much like Leonard did on Monday.