The fourth-seed vs fifth-seed first round matchup in the NBA Playoffs usually doesn’t feature an MVP candidate, but James Harden has been just that for the Houston Rockets this season. The Rockets, after an unforeseen 9-11 start to the season, were questioned if they could even replicate their 2017-18 success, nevermind build upon it. In the end, it was Harden’s outstanding play during and after Chris Paul and Clint Capela’s extended absences due to injury that eventually led the Rockets to the second-best offensive rating in the NBA (115.5) and home-court advantage in the first round.
The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, is similarly looking to build upon their success from last season, which included a second-round appearance after trouncing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. Donovan Mitchell managed to improve from his fantastic rookie season, and the team as a whole has rewarded the franchise for essentially running it back with the same roster, as the Jazz had the second-best defensive rating in the association (105.7) in back-to-back seasons.
The Rockets and Jazz will compete in a dream matchup that pits elite offense against an elite defense – just as they were in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, despite there being plenty of similarities in personnel between the two teams: a playmaking point guard, a go-to scoring option at the two-guard, and stifling rim protection from two of the league’s best defensive big men. Both teams are looking to improve upon last season’s success, but one team will have to settle for taking a step back by being sent packing earlier than expected.
Which Star Guard Will Have the More Efficient Series?
James Harden has been the epitome of impeccable consistency across the board in the regular season since joining the Rockets. The reigning MVP has averaged 29 points, 7.7 assists, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.8 steals on 44 percent shooting from the field 36 percent shooting from beyond the three-point line since being traded to Houston prior to the 2012-13 season. However, the playoffs have been a different story for The Beard, as his shooting efficiency drops significantly during the postseason.
With the help of an improved Clint Capela controlling the paint and a healthy Chris Paul prior to an injury in Game 5 of last year’s Western Conference Finals, Harden’s inopportune struggles were overshadowed by the team’s overall success. If the Rockets are to do any damage in the playoffs – not just the first round – Harden will need to keep his MVP form in this series, even against stellar defenders such as Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, and Jae Crowder.
Donovan Mitchell surprised everyone with his Rookie of the Year-worthy campaign and blew everyone away even more by improving upon his regular season averages in points, assists, and rebounds per game in the postseason. Similar to Harden, while his averages were similar to those of the regular season, his efficiency also suffered a noticeable decline – reasonable for a rookie that had to face a defensive menace in Paul George prior to running into these same Rockets in the second-round.
Mitchell has shown maturity in his second year in the league, improving from his rookie marks across the board on higher volume and consistency, and will similarly need to hold that consistency to have a chance at defeating a team that knocked off his own in five games last year.
Which Team Will Knock Down More Three-Pointers?
Everyone knows the Houston Rockets are an analytics-based team, as their offense is comprised of layups, dunks, free throws, and lots of three-pointers. However, the Utah Jazz are no slouches when it comes to letting it fly from beyond the arc either – and they aren’t half bad them, for that matter. Houston, as expected, is first in the association in threes attempted per game at 42.0, while the Jazz are ninth at 34.0.
Both teams are in the top half of the league in efficiency, as well. But one thing that comes with shooting so many threes, is that you live and die by the shot (see: Houston misses 27 straight threes in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals).
So the question arises, which team will sink the better share of their triples in this series?
There are plenty of noted marksman on both teams that will have to put their best work on display. Houston’s Harden, Paul, PJ Tucker, Gerald Green, and Eric Gordon all have shot at least 35-percent from deep on the season, while Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Thabo Sefolosha, Royce O’Neale, and Kyle Korver have done the same for the Jazz.
Houston’s offense allows for more open looks from distance, but Utah’s perimeter closeouts are much more menacing. Regardless, it’s simple, but important – the team that makes more of their three-pointers will be much better off in this series.
Which Rim-Protector Will Have More of an Impact?
Over the past few seasons, Rudy Gobert has asserted himself as the best rim-protector in the NBA and was awarded a Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. The fear of having a layup or dunk attempt sent into the third row by the “Stifle Tower” makes teams completely reform their offense, and for good reason. Gobert, who averages an impressive 2.3 blocks per game, will make life difficult for James Harden, who does get a large number of his points from drawing fouls and finishing around the rim, again making it important for the Rockets to make their outside shots.
Clint Capela is a springy, athletic big man himself, who is always looking to throw down an alley-oop from a member of his Hall of Fame backcourt. Similar to Gobert, he’s fantastic at disturbing shots at the rim.
These two big are elite at what they do, and whoever wins the battle down low will be a huge positive for their respective teams. It will be a rough go on the inside for both teams, as long as both bigs are able to avoid foul trouble.
Series Prediction: Houston in 6
2019 NBA Playoffs Series Schedule
Game 1 – 4/14, Utah @ Houston, 9:30 PM EST – TNT
Game 2 – 4/17, Utah @ Houston, 9:30 PM EST – TNT
Game 3 – 4/20, Houston @ Utah, 10:30 PM EST – ESPN
Game 4 – 4/22, Houston @ Utah, 10:30 PM – TNT
Game 5* – 4/24, Utah @ Houston, TBD – TBD
Game 6* – 4/26, Houston @ Utah, TBD – TBD
Game 7* – 4/28, Utah @ Houston, TBD – TBD