When Utah defeated Oklahoma City and came into Houston as a huge underdog, not only in Game 1, but for the entire series, I was ready to pull the trigger on the Jazz.
It was playing terrific team basketball; it had the better coach in the series; it proved what kind of home court advantage it has against the Thunder; and was a priced like a team with almost no shot.
But then I checked the head-to-head matchups this season and got scared off. The Rockets ran the Jazz for four games, two in Utah and two in Houston. Two of the games were even when Utah was playing well.
The Rockets’ shooting and run-and-gun style played against the bigger Jazz lineup in the regular season, and even in Game 1 when James Harden went bonkers with his step-back three-point shot and led the Rockets to a win and double-digit cover.
But in Game 2, Utah’s team basketball and better coach played and those two variables seem to me to be the stronger ones at play going forward in this series.
If you were like me and didn’t take Utah right from the start, it isn’t too late. The Jazz is still around +450 to +500 in the series and a sizable underdog on its home floor in Game 3, with the series tied at one game apiece.
I can’t pass Utah up in this game, though we will certainly see a much better effort out of the Rockets’ defense. Houston gave up open look after open look in Game 2 because it was playing like it was the regular season for the first 20 minutes of the game, before going on a run to end the first half and start the second. By the time it finally came back, it was so gassed that Utah cruised in the fourth quarter.
Chris Paul was also nowhere to be seen on the offensive end. The Jazz is missing Ricky Rubio‘s playmaking, but Royce O’Neale is a tough defender and he’s doing what he does best in helping Utah shut down Paul. James Harden found it tough to replicate his Game 1 performance against a combination of Donovan Mitchell, O’Neale and Dante Exum, among others.
And while you can have some success taking the head off the snake against Houston, there is just no way to neutralize the Jazz other than playing hard-nosed defense and digging in on every possession, which I have yet to see from the Rockets or Mike D’Antoni during his Head Coaching career.
So, yes, I’m down on the Rockets’ chances in this series now that Utah split the first two. I’m taking Utah despite thinking that Houston is going to come out in Game 3 refocused on the defensive end. Because playing harder on defense isn’t always enough; this isn’t a good defensive team and I believe it’s going to show going forward, like it did in Game 2.
Utah has an amazing home court advantage and it’s simply being sold short at this price. Take the Jazz with a full four points while you can because I don’t expect that number to hang around until tip.
Free Pick: Utah +4