Utah Jazz vs. Houston Rockets: Preview, Analysis and Predictions
All things considered, the 68th game of the regular season couldn't be any bigger than this.
The Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers are in a brawl for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference, and they are only separated by two games.
This head-to-head matchup on Wednesday night could prove to be very important at the end of the season—that is, assuming things stay as tight as they have been.
This is the fourth and final regular-season meeting between the two, and both teams need this game.
The Rockets won two of the first three meetings rather easily. On Jan. 28, they made 16 of 34 three-point attempts en route to destroying the Jazz, 125-80, in Utah.
Houston won 124-116 on Dec. 1 at the Toyota Center, and the Jazz took the first meeting at Energy Solutions Arena, 102-91. Utah will be looking to even the season series and to even up this potential tiebreaker.
They will have to get it done on the road, though. Considering the Rockets just lost by 30 at home to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, no one should be playing the Mission Impossible theme song.
Here's a look at what both teams need to do to win, the game's key matchup and my prediction.
Utah's Keys to Victory
Guard the Arc
In the Rockets' two wins against the Jazz this year, they were unconscious from downtown.
They made exactly 50 percent of their three-point attempts in those games. We're not talking five of 10, or even 10 of 20. The Rockets made a ridiculous 27 of 54 three-point shots against the Jazz in the two victories.
It is almost impossible to beat a team that is shooting the three like that.
Utah has to make that a focus, as the Rockets don't really have a player adept enough at scoring on the block to leave shooters.
They must also watch the threes in transition, which is something the Rockets love to do. Per MySynergySports.com (account required), the Rockets have made 34 percent of their threes in transition.
The Jazz have to get back on defense and find the shooters.
Win the War on the Glass
As a team, the Rockets are a little better on the boards than Utah. They rank ninth in the NBA, with Utah sitting at 13th.
In order to limit transition opportunities, they need to win the battle of the boards. In the one game they won this season against Houston, they won the rebounding battle, 55-49.
What number will be higher?
Slow the Game Down
The Rockets are not a good defensive team, but they are dangerous in up-tempo, high-scoring games.
The Jazz need to keep the score close to 100 points by slowing the game down. It is tempting to get into a shootout with the Rockets because they don't defend.
But very few teams can compete with them in this style, and the Jazz aren't one of them.
Houston's Keys to Victory
Push the Ball at Every Opportunity
Just as the Jazz need to slow the tempo, obviously, the Rockets need to push it. Per MySynergy.com, 16.9 percent of the Rockets' offense comes from transition. They score 1.16 points per transition opportunity, which is the eighth-highest percentage in the NBA.
If they control the tempo in this game, they will win again.
Take Care of the Ball
In the last meeting, the Rockets scored 125 points and only turned the ball over five times. That is pretty amazing, but this team can also be a bit out of control.
They lead the NBA in turnovers at 16.4 per game.
Even if the three-ball is working and they are controlling tempo, the biggest way to kill any momentum is to turn the ball over.
Al Jefferson vs. Omer Asik
This matchup will likely be the one that decides the game. Jefferson must be aggressive in taking the ball at Asik.
The Rockets center is an excellent low-post defender who understands how to play tall, but it would be a huge boost for the Jazz to get Asik in early foul trouble.
In many ways, his rebounding and shot-blocking ignites the Rockets' transition game. In the blowout win over the Jazz in January, Asik had 19 rebounds and two blocked shots in just 26 minutes.
Jefferson had only 10 points and eight rebounds in that game.
In the first meeting, Jefferson got the best of Asik. He had 14 points and 16 rebounds while Asik was a non-factor with six rebounds and two points on 0-for-5 shooting from the field.
If Jefferson plays well, he'll help to slow the tempo in the Jazz's favor, but if he's nullified, the Rockets will be off to the races again.
The Rockets' firepower is simply too much for the Jazz, who have seemingly gotten worse in understanding how to slow them.
Houston is prone to have a poor shooting night, but after they shot just 32 percent from the field in Sunday's loss to the Warriors, it is unlikely they lay another egg on Wednesday night.
They will make up with the home fans after that debacle with a 114-98 win over the Jazz.
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