(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Troy Taormina)
The Jazz were very impressive in disposing of the Thunder in six games in round one, and many expected them to take it up to Houston. In Game 1, however, that was not the case. The Rockets continued to demonstrate their credentials as a championship contender with a 110-96 win, which included a 64-39 first half.
Unsurprisingly, it was James Harden who did much of the damage. The likely MVP shot 7-for-12 from beyond the arc on the way to 41 points, and also grabbed eight rebounds to go with his seven assists.
For the Jazz, Donovan Mitchell continued his good form in his debut postseason with 21 points and five assists, while Jae Crowder came off the bench to also contribute 21 points.
Three keys to the game
Adjusting to life without Rubio - Ricky Rubio’s hamstring strain could easily keep him out for the entire series, and the Jazz will need to find a way to operate their offense without him. In Game 1, the ball didn’t move as well as it normally does under Quin Snyder’s watchful eye, with none of Mitchell, Joe Ingles or Dante Exum able to generate the same good looks Rubio creates.
Harden’s performance - If Harden plays like he did in Game 1, Houston will win again. His 26 shots generated 31 points, and he managed to drop in another ten points from 11 attempts at the free throw line. He also dished out seven assists, and generally seemed impossible to stop. He won’t hit seven 3-pointers every game, but when he gets in that sort of mood the Rockets look unbeatable.
Houston’s defense after turnovers - Though they won it easily, the Rockets were vulnerable off turnovers in Game 1. Their 14 turnovers were too many to start with, but making matters worse was their inability to stop the Jazz from scoring afterwards. In all, Utah scored 22 points from turnovers, and if they can do that again while limited the Rockets offense a little better, they’ll be in with a chance.
Matchup to watch
James Harden vs everybody - It takes more than one man to stop Harden. On Sunday, Royce O’Neal, starting in place of Rubio, took him to start with, but O’Neal doesn’t always contribute a lot at the other end of the floor. When he was off the floor, and sometimes when he was on it, Ingles and Crowder took turns at the star. None of them were able to do a whole lot to nullify the Beard’s impact, which is part and parcel of defending him. As one of the best isolation players in the history of the game, the simple fact is that if Harden is at his best, he’s going to score heavily. Utah will need multiple players to make it as difficult as possible for him, but even then there’s no guarantee it will stop him.
Houston Rockets predicted starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - PJ Tucker | C - Clint Capela
Utah Jazz predicted starting lineup
PG - Donovan Mitchell | SG - Royce O’Neal | SF - Joe Ingles | PF - Derrick Favors | C - Rudy Gobert
Unsurprisingly, it’s Harden who will probably have the biggest impact on this game. His 41 points in Game 1 of this series wasn’t the first time he’s tortured the Jazz this season. Back in November, he shot 19-for-25 from the field on the way to a ridiculous 56 points in 35 minutes, to go with 13 assists. In the other three regular season meetings with the Jazz, he put up 29 points, and 26 points twice.
Though they got outplayed in Game 1, it’s hard not to see value in the line of +11 which Utah have been given by oddsmakers. They have been the best defensive team in the league for the past few months, and will hope they can have more of an impact on Houston’s offense in Game 2. They probably won’t win, but should be able to keep the margin to single figures.
Houston will make it 2-0 thanks to another big performance from Harden, and more than handy contributions from his backcourt partner in Paul. Harden has taken a liking to Utah a couple of times this season, and while he may not put up another 40 points, he will clearly lead all scorers in the game.
Gobert’s impact at the defensive end is always profound, and the fact that the Rockets only scored 36 points in there in Game 1 is testament to that. Their plethora of outside shooters, however, means that that isn’t necessarily a problem for them. Expect the Rockets to once again put on a shooting show as they run out 107-99 winners at home.
The game will be broadcast nationally on TNT. Tip-off is at 8pm ET.