Houston Rockets vs. Utah Jazz
Series tied 1-1
While I wasn’t surprised to see the Jazz advancing to the conference semis (I did pick them to win in six), I have to admit, I didn’t see them taking it to the Rockets in Houston and stealing game two. After a 110-96 wipeout in game one that saw James Harden pour in forty-two points, the Rockets looked complacent in the early stages of game two, and it might end up costing them dearly. The Jazz came out in game two and built a nine-point halftime lead, and while Harden and company made a strong push in the third quarter, the pendulum of momentum swung back to the Jazz in the fourth quarter, partly because of the stellar play of forward Joe Ingles, but especially thanks to rookie guard Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell provided the game’s signature moment, elevating effortlessly to collect his own missed floater, then deciding, mid-air, in his own words “Why come down with it?”. Caught in the crossfire? The entire Rockets front court trio, who have most assuredly (and ignominiously) made it onto the soon-to- be best- selling poster in Utah Jazz history. The thunderous one handed jam put Utah up by six in the fourth quarter, and the Utah bench went full-blown crazy, but it wasn’t the theatrics of the jam that did it. It was the sudden, visceral reaction to the fact that they could, in fact, play with the Rockets. That moment, as their young leader embarrassed a formidable frontcourt, Mitchell single-handedly (pun intended) humanized a foe that had seemed invincible, and the 116-108 road win would reinforce that. The Jazz have a tremendously talented young team, led by Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert, who contributed fifteen points, fourteen rebounds and a trio of blocks to the cause. Joe Ingles going seven for nine from downtown didn’t hurt either. The Jazz stepped onto the court and beat the Rockets at their own game, shooting over forty-six percent from beyond the arc, compared with Houston’s twenty-seven percent. Here’s the thing, when the Rockets start to struggle, they rely on isolations for Harden, but that’s a much tougher way to win in the playoffs. Just ask the talented, but flawed Thunder team who just got ousted by this Jazz team. Harden’s otherworldly brand of hero ball may be enough to beat this up-and- coming Utah team but if/when the Rockets come face to face with a suddenly very healthy Warriors team, it’s going to be a much different story.
Prognosis: I still think it’s the Rockets, but I don’t think this is the only Jazz win. Rockets in six.
Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Golden State leads 2-0
If the Pelicans wanted to steal a game in Oakland, game one was their chance. Steph Curry remained out with the knee injury, and the Pelicans were both riding high, and well rested, after their impressive sweep of the third-seeded Portland Trailblazers. But the series opener was a convincing twenty-two- point Warrior win, in which Golden State poured in a whopping forty-one second quarter points and never looked back. Game two, while closer on paper, was more about the Warriors coming back together. It also featured the single loudest substitution in the history of the NBA, as Steph Curry came off the bench. The crowd had waited over a month (and the entire playoffs thus far) to see the two time MVP on the court again, but they still didn’t know what to expect, following the knee injury. Curry didn’t wait long to make his presence felt, striking from beyond the arc almost immediately after setting foot on the court. A few plays later, he calmly struck again, this time from six or seven feet further back, in transition. When Steph Curry is striking from that type of distance, there isn’t really any way for teams to stay close. The Pelicans tried, running the floor at a nearly frantic pace, pushing the Warriors to keep up. There’s only one problem with that theory. The Warriors are the best shooting team in the league. More chances, especially in transition, isn’t the way to beat them. Sure, Anthony Davis looked great, scoring a team-high twenty-five points and fifteen rebounds, and got help from Jrue Holliday and a reinvigorated Rajon Rondo, but if the Brow can’t go off for forty points, these Pelicans simply can’t keep up. That’s not going to happen with Draymond Green playing center and defending Davis. He’s simply been too skilled at preventing easy looks and forcing Davis to kick out. Listen, the Warriors are a different type of animal when they’re all healthy. Crushing, smothering defense coupled with relentless efficiency on offense. It’s almost impossible to game plan for, you just need to hope that they go cold and try to capitalize. Curry will be back in the starting lineup for game three in New Orleans, so the Pelicans better hope that happens soon.
Prognosis: The momentum of Curry’s return is probably too much for these Pelicans to counter. Warriors in four.