Troy Pierce| April 14th, 2019
This is a classic battle of offense versus defense. The Utah Jazz play a tough brand of basketball and force the opponent to work hard for 48 minutes. The Houston Rockets have claimed the third seed in the Western Conference thanks to James Harden‘s historic season as he looks to become a back-to-back MVP.
The Utah Jazz are a break from the norm. A tough defensive-minded team in the run and gun, three-point barrage era that the NBA is currently in. They finished the season ranking third in total blocks (483) and 12th in total steals (663). The Jazz are also second in terms of defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing just over 80% of available rebounds on that end of the floor.
The key for Utah in this series will be their defense. Shutting down, or rather containing, James Harden will be their top priority while forcing other Houston players to step up and beat them. Dominating the paint with strong interior defense and limiting Houston’s second chance opportunities will help keep the scoring low, giving the Jazz their best chance to win.
The Jazz will also need to rely on consistent play from both of their starting guards. Getting sophomore Donovan Mitchell involved early and often on offense will give Utah the extra scoring boost they need to contend with the Rockets.
Finding ways to prevent Ricky Rubio from being exposed on the defensive end will be important as well. Rubio has never been a particularly good defender and guarding an elite offensive player in James Harden will be a tall task.
James Harden has put the Houston Rockets on his back this season. Without his stellar scoring output, it’s hard to imagine they would have managed to claim the third seed in a very competitive Western Conference, but they’ve done just that.
Harden has struggled in the playoffs but he will need to find a way to fight through that mental block and continue to carry his team. Having to face one of the best defensive teams the league has to offer will certainly be the test Houston needs after a somewhat uncertain season, feeling the impact of injuries to two of their most important players, Chris Paul and Clint Capela.
Harden will need the other two members of the Rockets Big 3 to step up and join him on this playoff run if they hope to take down the Golden State Warriors.
Harden has averaged over 33 points per game against the Jazz this year, making around 3.25 three-pointers and nearly 10 free throws in four matchups.
While The Beard did eclipse the 40-point mark in two of those previous matchups, the stifling defense that the Jazz play held Harden to just 15 points in their December 6th matchup, his lowest single-game scoring total of the season.
The Rockets go as Harden goes and they will need him to continue to shine as they start their quest for the NBA Finals. The Jazz will be without Rudy Gobert and Houston should smell blood in the water, attacking the inside early and often and working themselves to the free-throw line.
Houston over Utah, 4-1.
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Main Credit Image: Adam Glanzman, Getty Images