Wednesday’s Playoff Essentials

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Playoff Results | Playoff Projections

Western Conference Semifinals - Game 2 - Rockets lead 1-0
Utah at Houston (-11/205), TNT, 8:05 p.m. ET

The Rockets have won their last three playoff home games by double-digits, which includes a commanding victory in this series opener on Sunday. Houston led by 25 points at halftime and finished 17-for-32 on 3-pointers to run away with a 110-96 win.

It was far from a perfect performance since the Rockets’ typically strong bench was outscored 40-13, but definitely provided a reminder that only the Warriors can match Houston’s ability to pull away from teams due to prolific shooting from beyond the arc. Defensively, the Rockets held the Jazz to just 7-for-22 shooting on 3-pointers as rookie star Donovan Mitchell made only one of his seven attempts.

Houston held on for the Game 1 cover as an 11-point favorite as Utah was able to pull within 11 points only once in the entire fourth quarter. Joe Ingles’ layup with 8.4 seconds remaining provided the game’s final basket, allowing those who got in on under 206.5 to sneak off with the cash.

Oddsmakers have the Rockets as an 11-point chalk again in Game 2 and have dropped the total slightly to 205.

James Harden scored his team’s first five points and finished with a dozen in the first quarter to ensure that the Rockets got off to a strong start. He finished with 41 points in easily getting the better of a defense regarded as one of the NBA’s best. Defensive player of the year frontrunner Rudy Gobert failed to come up with even one block.

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder commented that his team must make life harder on him but didn’t seem to have many answers on how to do so.

Harden matched a playoff career-high with his seven 3-pointers in Game 1. He averaged 34.3 points against Utah over the course of four regular-season victories – all by double-digits – so keep that in mind if you’re taking points.

The Jazz have now dropped five games against Houston by an average of 16.8 points in what has been a rough matchup for them since Gobert’s ability to control the paint doesn’t factor in as heavily due to the Rockets’ perimeter prowess and the fact Harden and Chris Paul can so easily get buckets for teammates.

Houston won big despite its entire bench being outscored by Jae Crowder 21-13, which has to be disconcerting if you’re the Jazz. Eric Gordon led the reserves with seven points, all on free throws, and went 0-for-6 from the field. That’s unlikely to happen again. Lue Richard Mbah a Moute saw his first action this postseason and shot 1-for-5 in his first stint since dislocating his shoulder on April 10. Ryan Anderson went scoreless in nine minutes, while Gerald Green came in only in garbage time late.

Expect a stronger effort from the Rockets’ backups at home now that they know what to expect in Game 2. The question now becomes, can Utah step up its level of play. Crowder will be invaluable in this series since he’s being counted on to do his best against Harden, while rookie Royce O’Neale stepped into the starting lineup with Ricky Rubio sidelined by a hamstring injury.

He’s unlikely to play until Game 4 at the earliest, so making this is a series will hinge on getting more from Mitchell, who shot 9-for-22 and is playing with nagging foot and ankle injuries. Dante Exum and Alec Burks also got increased minutes with Rubio out and combined to shoot 5-for-14, missing all three 3-point attempts. Outside of Crowder’s strong effort from beyond the arc, the rest of the Jazz combined to shoot 2-for-15 on 3s. That won’t cut it.

Houston’s ability to play small is also likely to force Snyder’s hand in how much he can utilize Derrick Favors and Gobert together since both can be taken advantage of on pick-and-rolls. Utah’s bigs combined to shoot 6-for-9 from the field but had nowhere near the impact they enjoyed against Oklahoma City. Snyder knew that incorporating both effectively would be a challenge coming into the series and quickly saw that come to fruition in Game 1. I’d expect to see more of Jonas Jerebko on Wednesday night in addition to more of either Burks or Exum in smaller lineups.

It remains to be seen if that tweak will result in a higher-scoring game. Dating back to the final few games of the regular season, the under is 6-3 in the last nine Jazz games. Utah surrendered 110 points, the second-highest figure it has given up in these playoffs, and has now given up at least that many in four of the five encounters with the Rockets, who torched them for a season-worst 137 way back on Nov. 5 thanks to Harden’s season-high 56 points. He shot 19-for-25 in that game, which was so long ago that Rodney Hood was in Utah’s starting lineup ahead of Mitchell, who led the way with 17 points off the bench.

It’s no secret that the Jazz’s prized rookie views Paul as a mentor of sorts, but their friendship was a non-factor in the series opener. Paul said it was “easy” to set it aside since it’s competition and “nothing personal,” but we’ll see how Game 2 unfolds since the veteran should have an advantage at the point as he chases the first conference finals appearance of his 12-year career. Thus far, Paul is averaging 18.7 points and 6.5 assists in these playoffs, right in line with his regular-season averages. He had his best outing, a 27-point effort, in Game 2 against Minnesota.

Clint Capela added 16 points and 12 rebounds against the Jazz and has registered double-doubles in three straight playoff games. If he continues to match the production of Gobert and Favors on his own, Utah isn’t likely to win a single game in the series.

The under had been on a 9-1 run in Houston games entering Game 3 of the Minnesota series but the over came in three straight times as the Rockets put the Timberwolves away 4-1. The under barely held on in Game 1 against the Jazz, aided in part by Utah’s 13-for-22 performance from the free-throw line. The over went 3-1 in the regular-season meetings between these squads, who will get together in Salt Lake City for Game 3 on Friday night.

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