Houston Rockets @ Utah Jazz on 12/2/2013

It’s been a good week for the Houston Rockets. They won all four games, including a come-from-behind win against a division rival in the Memphis Grizzlies and a real barnburner against the San Antonio Spurs, one of the elite teams in the league. Terrence Jones is coming into his own, James Harden has returned from injury, and the bench seems to be gelling. They’re on cloud nine and nothing could bring the Rockets down now.

Actually, a gut-punch loss to a tanking team right after a huge, tough win might do it. The Utah Jazz have been many things to the Rockets over the years: rival, stumbling block, and lately fodder. Being the trap in the trap game would just be the latest incarnation of a decades-long rivalry. The Rockets are the better team, and should expect to win this game handily. Houston just passed a test of grit and determination in San Antonio. Now they have to pass a test of vigilance in Utah, against a young squad ready to hop on the Rockets if they show complacency.

The last time these two teams squared off, nobody knew exactly what to expect from the Utah Jazz. It was only the third game of the season and the young talent on the Jazz looked promising at worst. The promise of players like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors is still there. What isn’t there is an offense or a defense. The Jazz give up the most points per 100 possessions in the league, at a deeply troubling efficiency of 106.3. On the other side of the ball, their offensive efficiency of 94 points per 100 possessions is almost as bad, placing them at 27th in the league. In short, this is a team that loses often and loses with aplomb.

Why should the Rockets be afraid? Two weeks ago, the clearly tanking Philadelphia 76ers brought the Rockets to their knees in a crushing overtime defeat, largely at the hands of James Anderson. Every NBA player is amazing, and every NBA team is bursting with talent. Drive and effort matter in this league, and those can fade away as easily as they arrive. Just because a front office has no use for wins doesn’t mean the players and coaches feel the same way, and Jazz head coach Ty Corbin won’t complain if point guard Trey Burke explodes any game of the season.

The response from the Rockets and head coach Kevin McHale has to be to slam the door early and firmly. The Rockets are starting to look like an elite team, but unlike the Spurs or the Miami Heat, they don’t have the luxury of having nothing to prove. Houston, in fact, has quite a bit to prove, meaning that they have to bring a real level of effort to every game, even ones LeBron and the Heat can afford to sleepwalk through. If the Rockets want any room to coast, they’ll have to create that room right away with a huge lead out of the gate.

Watch for the bench in particular to be crucial in this game. With Jeremy Lin out with a knee bruise and Chandler Parsons continuing to suffer from back spasms (which he can play through), players like Omri Casspi and Aaron Brooks will continue to have to come up big for Houston. The trend of the reserves being able to handle increasing load is a huge boon for Houston, and they’re likely to try to foster that more and more over the course of the season. Every minute James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons can be replaced by Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia and Ömer Aşık is one step closer to having a fresh, healthy team for the playoffs.

The Rockets might not be particularly afraid of Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams, but they still need to respect them. Any team can win on any given night, and the Rockets need to respond to their win over the Spurs with a San Antonio level of stoicism. If they celebrate too much or let their guard down, anything could happen. Every game is a test for this young would-be contender, and they can’t afford to start failing now. The Rockets and Jazz tip off at 8:00 pm Central time at the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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