Derrick Favors had 24 points and 10 rebounds and Joe Ingles added 18 points as the Utah Jazz beat the Houston Rockets 118-91 at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday.
The Jazz dominated even though starting center Rudy Gobert was ejected after arguing a foul call three minutes into the game.
James Harden had 15 points for the Rockets, who fell to 11-13. The Jazz are now 13-13 and have won four of their last five games.
Jazz Will Overcome Brutal Early-Season Schedule to Make Run in West
The Jazz have regressed a bit after going 48-34 and making the Western Conference Semifinals last season.
John Schuhmann of NBA.com did a deep dive Thursday explaining why that may be. Of note, Utah has worse marks in offensive and defensive efficiency, and the team is also below average defensively when Gobert is off the floor.
However, Schuhmann also pointed to a brutal early-season schedule that has hindered Utah's success thus far:
"There is reason for optimism. Through Tuesday, when you take opponent strength, game location, and rest days into account, the Jazz had played the league's second-toughest schedule. Nineteen of their first 21 games were against teams that are currently over .500 and they've played just four games (three against Memphis and one against Miami) against the other nine teams that rank in the bottom 10 offensively.
"The Jazz have played the most road games in the league (16), and they just got done with a brutal, three-week stretch in which they played 10 of 12 games away from home, making two different trips to the East coast."
Utah has 14 games on its schedule against six teams with records of 10 games below .500 or worse: the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.
Utah has played just one of those teams so far, and that wasn't until November 28 when the Jazz beat Brooklyn 111-101 on the road. The Jazz still have seven home games (and six road contests) against this group, and that should help its conference placement moving forward.
At 13-13, the Jazz are just one half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Not only can the Jazz find themselves in the top eight, but a top-four seed is a possibility with the West's leading quartet all having 16 or 17 wins.
Ultimately, Utah's easier road ahead—and its recent hot streak—should propel the Jazz to greater heights.
Rockets Need Consistent Bench to Climb Western Conference Standings
There are multiple reasons why the Rockets have fallen down the Western Conference standings after a 65-17 season netted them a No. 1 seed last year. However, the Rockets' lack of depth may be the main reason why.
In the first half, Favors scored 12 points in 15 minutes off the bench. His scoring efforts matched the entire Houston bench's production as four Rockets reserves combined for 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting.
That lack of production has been symbolic of the entire season. According to NBA.com, Houston reserves ranked last in points per game, field-goal percentage, rebounds and assists heading into Thursday. They were also second-worst in three-point percentage and fourth-worst in free-throw percentage.
The issue is that the answers are on other teams' rosters. The Rockets had the luxury of a versatile group of players around guards James Harden and Chris Paul last year, but that isn't the case this season with veterans Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute all playing elsewhere.
Ariza was a key cog in the starting rotation who could play tough defense and hit threes. Anderson could get hot from deep and provide a complementary scoring punch. Mbah a Moute was a tough defender in his own right.
While the Rockets still have key members from last year's rotation (e.g. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green), the team simply isn't as deep as it used to be with that aforementioned trio gone. The team's defensive intensity from last season is also non-existent with Ariza and Mbah a Moute in other uniforms. Houston's efficiency on that end dipped from sixth last year to 23rd this season.
Perhaps Houston needs to find some reinforcements, but without a stronger bench, the Rockets aren't going anywhere this season.
Utah will face the San Antonio Spurs on the road Sunday at 7 p.m. ET. The Rockets will finish a three-game road trip on Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks at 6 p.m. ET.
Where to Watch: NBA broadcasts are available through fuboTV.