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The Houston Rockets return to the NBA Playoffs to face off against the Utah Jazz, 10 months removed from their narrow defeat to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Houston were outstanding last season to beat out the Warriors for the top seed, with a 65-win campaign. However, after advancing to the Conference Finals and taking a 3-2 lead, they were unable to edge over the line to earn a Finals berth.
Steph Curry and Kevin Durant loomed large to defeat the Rockets in the final two matches. Houston were made to rue an injury to Chris Paul, denying them a foil opposite James Harden, resulting in their exit. The MVP could not carry the Rockets alone in the Conference Finals, but he returns to the post-season with a point to prove in a similar vein of form.
Harden has produced another MVP-caliber term, guiding Mike D’Antoni’s men to a 53-win campaign and the fourth seed in the Western Conference. The Rockets have been unfortunate to run into a dynasty in the form of the Warriors, but have an opportunity to challenge for the crown this term to knock off Steve Kerr’s men.
The Jazz will make life difficult as Quin Snyder’s side boast one of the best defenses in the NBA. Utah have been a model of consistency, earning a playoff berth and the fifth seed for the third year on the bounce.
The club have produced excellent performances in the past to advance beyond the first round, defeating the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. However, the Rockets defeated them in the Conference Semi-Finals last season and will be eyeing a similar result this year.
D’Antoni’s men have returned to the post-season, enjoying another fine campaign to clinch the Southwest Division. Harden has managed to raise the level of his game, averaging 36.1 points per game – six higher than his performance in the last campaign. He has averaged eight points more per game than the next best player in the NBA – Paul George.
The 29-year-old has been incredible in the final third of the court, remaining at the peak of his powers with his poise and accuracy. Houston need him to remain flawless throughout the post-season. Although he was brilliant last term, Harden did try to do too much without Paul in the Conference Finals.
Harden has to accept that he cannot do it all alone in the playoffs, especially against the elite teams. He needs to be dominant and efficient with his opportunities. The Jazz will attempt to effect his accuracy and it will be a good test to see what he and his team-mates have learned from last term.
Paul has missed time with injury this term, but he is healthy for the playoff run. Houston sorely missed his experience and quality in the Conference Finals last season. The nine-time All-Star has earned a great deal of plaudits in his career, but has a point to prove in the playoffs.
At the age of 33, time is running out for Paul to win a Championship. Paired with Harden, the Rockets have a devastating tandem at their disposal. However, there is not a lot of youth on the team and the pressure is on the club to win now.
The Jazz were blown away by the quality of the Rockets last season in the Conference Semi-Finals. Utah faced off against one offensive powerhouse in the form of the Thunder in the first round last term. They were able to stymie the threat of Russell Westbrook and George, playing the game on their terms. Donovan Mitchell was outstanding on the court, displaying poise beyond his years to put points on the board.
The rearguard effort allowed Oklahoma City to break over the 100-point mark twice in six games – a remarkable effort given the Thunder’s quality. However, Harden and Paul were on form throughout the Semi-Finals to ease their way past Snyder’s men. Utah will have learned a great deal from the experience, although the challenge of Harden and Paul remain.
Rudy Gobert will hold the key in the defensive third of the court. He ranked third in the NBA in blocks this term, while only three players notched more rebounds. The 26-year-old could make the difference in a low-scoring game. One defensive stand against Harden and Paul in the clutch could turn the contest into the hands of Utah.
Mitchell at the other end of the court has to remain at the peak of his powers. He kicked on from his impressive rookie campaign. The 22-year-old became a more well-rounded player, while his minutes on the court increase. Mitchell seems to have an appetite for the big occasion and performed extremely well against the Thunder and more than held his own against Houston last term. However, he will have to be outstanding to see off the Rockets this time around.
The Rockets pummeled Utah into submission during the Conference Semi-Finals last season. The Jazz did steal a game on the road in the second match of the series, but D’Antoni’s men bounced back to win three on the bounce to advance.
Utah earned revenge in their matchup of the campaign as a 38-point effort from Mitchell guided them a win in Houston.
Derrick Favors came off the bench to secure another win for the Jazz on home court. However, the Rockets bounced back to level the series during the regular season courtesy of two 40-point performances from Harden.
The Rockets were playing their best basketball of the season in the final months of the campaign. Harden and Paul were beginning to find their rhythm on the court and they should be operating at the peak of their powers to see off the Jazz. Utah have a stout defense and Gobert will provide a challenge to Harden and company.
Mitchell has the propensity to put points and the board and it might be enough to snatch a win. Four wins will be beyond Utah on this occasion in the first round. Back the Rockets to get off to a good start in the opener with a win at Toyota Center at odds of -255 at TopBet. They should secure the series without a great deal of trouble at odds of -305 with BetOnline, and it could be a 4-1 scoreline again.
Houston Rockets To Beat Utah Jazz Game One
Sunday 14th April 2019 21:30 EST (Monday 15th April 02:30 BST)
Houston Rockets To Beat Utah Jazz Playoff Series
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