The Houston Rockets will face the Utah Jazz for the second consecutive season in the playoffs, but this time they will meet Utah in the first round.
Even after Houston’s season finale on Tuesday, their place in the playoff picture was still undecided on the last night of the season on Wednesday.
If the Nuggets lost, the Rockets would have clinched the second seed. If Denver won but Portland lost, Houston would have remained in the third seed. Instead, both Denver and Portland won, sending the Rockets down to the fourth seed.
Houston will face the Utah Jazz in the postseason for the second consecutive year, but this time the teams will meet in the first round instead of the semifinals.
Houston and Utah split their season series this season, with the Jazz winning the first two games and the Rockets taking the last pair. Chris Paul only appeared in two of the four matchups, and the Rockets also split the series with the Jazz when Paul played.
The Rockets beat Utah in just five games in last season’s Western Conference Semifinals. Both James Harden and Chris Paul put up big numbers across the board and Clint Capela held his own against Rudy Gobert, as the Rockets proved both too experienced and too talented for the Jazz.
The Jazz have roughly the same core this season as they had when they faced the Rockets back in 2018, although they did add Kyle Korver, one of the best 3-point shooters of all time. However, Houston has gone through quite a few changes.
Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are gone and former Sixth Man of the Year, Eric Gordon, now starts for the Rockets in a three guard lineup with Harden and Paul. Houston has added Danuel House Jr, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert to fill out the second unit, along with Gerald Green and Nene. As a result, the Rockets are now a deeper team that can deploy a greater quantity of lineups, depending on how they matchup with their opponent.
Both Houston and Utah are heading into the postseason red-hot. The Rockets have been the league’s best team since the All-Star break, winning 20 of their 25 games and finishing second in both offensive and defensive rating. The Jazz, on the other hand, have won 18 of their 25 games since the break, the third best record in the league. Utah ranks first in defensive rating and fourth in offensive rating over that span. The Rockets and Jazz also rank first and second in net rating since the break.
Clearly, Houston and Utah have found their groove and have proved once again that they are capable of playing elite level basketball. Both of these teams are great on both sides of the ball, but Houston’s talent at the top with James Harden and Chris Paul will separate them from the Jazz in this series.