There’s only been one team hotter than the Utah Jazz since the All-Star break: the Houston Rockets. Through a series of unlikely events, the two teams face each other in the first round.
Early in the season, the Rockets looked vulnerable. They started the season 11-14. Chris Paul looked to have significantly slowed, Eric Gordon couldn’t make a shot, Carmelo Anthony was so bad that the team moved him after only 10 games, and injuries hit hard in the season, taking out Paul, center Clint Capela and others for significant chunks of time.
That’s when James Harden stepped up, carrying the Rockets. He scored 40 points or more in five straight games in late December. He scored 50 or more in three out of five in January. As teams double-teamed him, sent help from every which way, Harden scored and scored some more.
Then the Rockets got healthy, and since then, they’ve been ablaze: a 20-5 record since the All-Star break, the league’s best. Two of those losses came by one point, one came by two. One came to the league’s best team in Milwaukee.
But as much as their record in the last two months has been reminiscent of their 65-win campaign of 2017-18, this is a different squad than last year.
Yes, they still rely on Harden and Paul. But Harden’s taken a bigger load of the scoring, having expanded his game even further with more step-back threes and more floaters than ever before. He averaged 36.1 points per game this season, the best scoring season since Michael Jordan’s peak. The step-back three is rocking, the floater game is working, and he has driven the Rockets to becoming the league’s second-leading offense.
Meanwhile, Paul has looked a little bit sketchy at times. His scoring is down while his assist numbers have stayed largely stagnant, but a loss of vertical athleticism means that he’s not much of a threat attacking the rim: every time it looks like he’s going to take a layup, he’s going to pass it. That being said, his mid-range game is as dangerous as ever.
Gone are Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, defenders that gave the Jazz and especially Donovan Mitchell problems. Mitchell, a religious film-watcher, says he “kind of memorized” each play of Games 1-through-5 of last season’s playoff series, trying to glean some insight.
“The more I watched, the more I realized that it’s not going to do me any good to watch last year’s tape, because last year they had Trevor Ariza. For me, that was the main factor, trying to break down that,” Mitchell said. “Now, it’s more about tendencies as a whole.”
P.J. Tucker is in, but so are smaller defenders like Danuel House, Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert. Gordon has moved to the starting lineup, something he’s grown more accustomed to throughout the season.
But the size decrease has meant Houston has been more reluctant to switch absolutely everything this season, as the defense suffered in the early part of the year. Instead, the Rockets started to play more standard pick and roll defense rather than switching every pick. Will they continue that against the Jazz, or go back to the policy that caused the Jazz so many problems last season?
Likewise, the Rockets brought tremendous physicality in last year’s series, but are less well equipped to do that again this year. Beyond their perimeter defense, they also haven’t done a good job cleaning up the defensive glass: they’re the third-worst defensive rebounding team in the league this season. Because the Rockets have become a somewhat slow team, there might not be as significant a downside to sending someone to the offensive glass to try to get extra possessions for the Jazz.
While the pieces around the Rockets’ superstars have changed, they’re still defined by one unique force who has only improved: Harden.
"There’s a lot about their team that is different, but who they are is still James,” Snyder said. “There’s no better player in the league, and that’s not something that even needs to be discussed or debated.”