by Russ Bengtson
OK, how’s this for confusing? The Utah Jazz, winners of the Northwest Division, are the higher seed in their first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets. They would have been seeded even higher, but New Orleans and San Antonio finished tied atop the Southwest, so Utah dropped from third to fourth. However, since the Rockets finished with one more win than the Jazz (55-27 to 54-28), the Rockets—despite being the lower seed—have home-court advantage. Got that? Good, because that’s all the explanation you’re gonna get.
There’s no set way to do this, so I’m gonna just schoolteacher it—two subjects followed by the traditional seven-point (starters, bench, coach) breakdown, followed by one final subject. School is now in session.
HISTORY: They say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And obviously, reading Tracy McGrady’s quotes, he’s learned from history:
“If we don’t get out of the first round, it’s on me. … This team is gonna go as far as I can take ’em.” —Tracy McGrady, 2007
“It’s a team sport. We go out there and play as a team, compete as a team. I’m not out there by myself. That’s what I tell people. Don’t single me out.” —Tracy McGrady, 2008
That said, it seems likely that he’s going to be doomed to repeat it anyway.
There’s no need to go way back into the past to find the last Jazz/Rockets playoff series—the two squads faced off in the first round just last year. The Rockets had home-court advantage then too, and it didn’t help. The home teams won every game except for the last one, as Tracy McGrady failed once again to get out of the first-round (six tries and counting) and the Jazz muscled their way to the Western Conference Finals.
Both teams featured 20-10 All-Stars, the Jazz with rugged power forward Carlos Boozer, and the Rockets with giant center Yao Ming, Both averaged 20-10 again this year. The difference is that while the injury-prone Boozer played a career-high 81 games, Yao fractured his foot, missed a third of the season, and won’t be back for the playoffs.
Then there’s the ever-important Malone factor. Both teams have had MVP Malones in the past—the Jazz with Karl, the Rockets with Moses. But the Jazz get the edge since they also had Jeff. Sorry, Rockets fans. That’s just how it goes.
(The Rockets and Jazz have played each other in the playoffs six times in all. The Jazz lead the all-time series 4-2. The only times the Rockets beat the Jazz, in 1994 and 1995, they went on to win the NBA Championship.)
MATHEMATICS: I’m going to bullet points here just because they look more professional and professorial:
• The Jazz went 2-1 against the Rockets this year, beating them by nine and eight and losing by 11. The sole Jazz loss is significant for two reasons—number one, it came in Utah (a rarity this season, which we’ll get to in a second), and number two, it took place on November 1st. In 2008, the Jazz have had the Rockets’ number.
• Still it’s pretty amazing that the Rockets were able to win in Utah at all. The Jazz went a League-best 37-4 at home and a rather pedestrian 17-24 on the road. The Rockets, on the other hand, were more even, going 31-10 and 24-17 respectively.
• Both the Rockets and the Jazz were an identical 33-19 against the West. Meaningless, but a neat coincidence.
• Subtract the Rockets second-best-in-League-history 22-game winning streak, and their record is a barely-over-.500 33-27. Which still leaves them with a winning percentage that would have earned them a four seed in the East, but that’s besides the point. Not that I had one. Except for the fact that the East sucks.
• While Houston finished with the better record, Utah finished with the better point differential (+6.9 to +4.7). And if you believe stat guys like John Hollinger, that means Utah is actually the better team. I think.
• Utah plays fast—they averaged 106.2 ppg, fourth-highest in the League behind only the Warriors, the Suns and the Lakers. The Rockets, free at last from the Jeff Van Gundy slow-motion offense, still only managed an anemic 96.7 ppg, placing them ahead of only the Spurs, Cavs and Sixers amongst playoff teams. (The Jazz allowed 99.2 ppg on the season, so the Rockets had better pick it up.)
• According to Dean Oliver’s Offensive and Defensive Ratings (check Basketball Reference), the Rockets finished the season second overall in Defensive Rating, while the Jazz finished first in Offensive. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object. Not sure what to expect besides a lot of finger-wagging.
• Lets get to the roster matchups before everyone falls asleep.
Rafer Alston vs. Deron Williams
Even if Alston weren’t going to miss the first two games, despite a fine season that saw him average 13.1 points and 5.3 assists, this is an easy one. Skip’s a solid NBA point, Deron Williams is a stellar one. With averages of 19.0 points and 10.6 dimes, you could argue he was the Jazz MVP.
Tracy McGrady vs. Ronnie Brewer
Ronnie Brewer’s a nice player. Really. He started all 75 games he played, averaged a respectable 12.1 points on 56 percent shooting. But Tracy McGrady’s a star. In a below-par season (he shot a lackluster 42 percent from the floor), he still averaged 21.8 points, 5.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds. Provided he’s healthy (which he seems to be) and motivated (which he’d better be), this is no contest.
Shane Battier vs. Andrei Kirilenko
Battle of the defensive stoppers! It’s unlikely they’ll be wasting their talents on one another so much—it seems likely that Kirilenko will be shifted over to McGrady duties if Mac gets hot—and Drei is the more gifted player overall. But there’s something about knowing your role. Battier, who averaged 9.3 points and 5.1 boards this year, doesn’t look for his shot unless he’s open, usually in the corners (he shot 38 percent from three) and never complains. Kirilenko almost had a nervous breakdown in last year’s series, and has never quite regained his pre-Booz/Deron All-Star form. But he did bounce back a bit this year, averaging 11 points, 4.7 boards, 4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks, shooting 50 percent from the floor and a surprising (thank you, Jeff Hornacek) 39 percent from three.
Luis Scola vs. Carlos Boozer
Scola, the 27-year-old Argentine ‘rookie’, has played well all season, even better since moving into Houston’s starting lineup. He’s a 50-percent shooter and a tough rebounder with veteran savvy acquired through years of international play. He may be an NBA rookie, but he’s an old pro. That said, he’s no match for the rock-solid Boozer, one of the L’s few 20/10 guys and a stone-cold scorer in the blocks. If he could score on Yao, he’ll be able to score on Scola.
Dikembe Mutombo vs. Mehmet Okur
Neither of them were born in America, both are tall, both are former All-Stars, and their errant elbows and forearms can cause untold damage. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. What they are, more or less, are the two halves of a divided Bill Laimbeer. The ageless Mutombo got the sharp elbows and defensive presence, while Okur got the perimeter offense. The closest they may come to each other during any given game is when they jump center.
The Jazz got a big boost when they acquired sweet-shooting Kyle Korver from the Sixers in exchange for doghoused Gordan Giricek. The Rockets took a huge hit when they lost Yao and his 37 minutes a game. Yes, they still have wild-ass Chuck Hayes and Steve “47 Percent From Three” Novak, along with the formerly unheralded Carl Landry and a pu-pu platter of undersized guards including Luther Head, Aaron Brooks and Bobby Jackson. But the Jazz, along with Korver, can come with bruising forward Paul Millsap (the team’s third-leading rebounder in just 20 minutes a night) and a Collins twin. Beat that.
Rick Adelman vs. Jerry Sloan
Adelman did a great job keeping things together this year when Yao went down, but the crotchety old farmer is one of the best NBA coaches of all time.
And now for the final subject.
ENGLISH: The Rockets had a great season—that 22-game win streak was no joke—and it would be terrific if Tracy McGrady could finally break on through to the other side. His last three first-round stays have gone the distance. This one won’t.
JAZZ IN FIVE