The Tribune’s Tony Jones breaks down the Western Conference semifinals ahead of Game 1 in Houston on Sunday afternoon.
Saturday’s news that Ricky Rubio will miss Game 1 and potentially a few weeks with a hamstring injury is a hammer blow to a Jazz team that needs him at full strength to compete. Chris Paul is one of the best point guards in NBA history, and needs a title to cement his legacy. To combat his brilliance, the Jazz need every healthy advantage they can get — but who will handle the load in Rubio’s absence?
Donovan Mitchell has superstardom written all over him after a brilliant Game 6 to close out the Thunder — but James Harden may be the league’s best offensive player and will be this season’s MVP. Harden is an efficient scorer, brilliant off the dribble, a lethal passer, and imaginative in getting to the free-throw line. He’s almost indefensible. It figures to be a fascinating matchup.
Like OKC’s Paul George, Houston’s Trevor Ariza is a terrific defender. He’s athletic with long arms and great anticipation and the ability to bother Joe Ingles. That said, Ingles figured George out toward the end of the OKC series. Unlike George, Ariza isn’t a great offensive player. He’s a terrific shooter, but Ingles won’t have to expend as much defensive energy as he did in the first round.
Can the Jazz make PJ Tucker pay for guarding Derrick Favors? Tucker is a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Favors will have to be big in the paint and rebound the basketball. He will have to defend on the perimeter as well when Tucker stretches the floor. It figures to be another really good matchup, and one the Jazz have to win to have a chance in this series.
Clint Capela is a terrific rim-running center, who has become a good defender and rebounder. But he’s not Rudy Gobert, who dominated Oklahoma City defensively and give the Jazz a take control in the paint. Gobert will have to continue his great play on defense, and get as much offense as he can contribute, to give the Jazz an opportunity in this series.
Eric Gordon is a great shooter with explosive scoring ability, and may be the best sixth man in the NBA. Ryan Anderson, and Luc Mbah A Moute, and Gerald Green make Houston’s bench a game-changer. Utah’s bench is good, but nowhere as deep. The Jazz will rely mostly on Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale. Finding positive minutes from Dante Exum may be gravy.
Mike D’Antoni and Quin Snyder are two of the best coaches in the league. D’Antoni mostly relies on his terrific offensive system, and is great at making adjustments over the course of a series. Snyder has it all: Preparation, in-game adjustments, between-game adjustments, and lineup management. He’s the complete package on the bench.
It’s hard to have more intangibles than Chris Paul at this point. He’s one of the best leaders the league has seen in the past decade. For the Jazz, how much does the short turnaround affect them on Sunday after Friday night’s exhausting victory?
This won’t be the mismatch it was for the Jazz last season against the Golden State Warriors in the semifinals. Still, winning this series will take Utah playing at peak level.
THE TRIBUNE’S CALL: Houston should take this in five games.