The back and forth Rockets host a rematch against the visiting Utah Jazz on Saturday, hoping to not only get payback for one of their worst blowouts on the season, but to climb to .500 yet again. The Rockets have been beaten soundly three games so far, but none so early and unexpectedly as the blowout they suffered in Utah on November 19th.
After being dismantled in a perfect storm against the Thunder, the Rockets will be ready and willing to bounce back against the Jazz, one of their primary competitors for a playoff spot in a brutal Western Conference. The Jazz are almost the flip side of the Rockets coin, and Houston badly needs to find purchase Saturday if they intend to come out of December with a winning record. Unfortunately, that is likely to be a difficult battle against a team who has been a difficult matchup for the last few seasons.
The injury situation for Houston looms large over this game, with Chandler Parsons a game time decision. He took a hit in Houston’s win over Toronto on Tuesday and suffered a bone bruise to his shoulder. He hopes to be able to play against the Jazz, but is reportedly still in some degree of pain. While it’s critically important for his health to be maintained long term, that same import calls for him to play in every game possible if the Rockets are to sniff the playoffs. With Carlos Delfino still day-to-day with a groin injury, Parsons is not only the best small forward on the Rockets’ roster, but nearly the only one. Marcus Morris, he of an unexpected sophomore breakout, has been swapped between the 3 and the 4 repeatedly in his career, and the coaching staff seems to have settled on a 4 role for him. Whether he can fill in for Parsons or not, there’s no depth at all past him, unless Parsons and Delfino can come back.
It’s largely true that the wing positions are interchangeable, but sliding Harden or Cook to the 3 was an exercise in frustration against the Thunder. Given, not every team has a Durant to incinerate most defenders, but size is still a major issue. Parsons has the height, length, weight and skill to guard players from guards all the way to many power forwards. He’s not a big name in the NBA, but his growing ability on both sides of the ball suggest he might garner some name recognition in coming years. If he can’t dress for the Rockets tonight, it simply puts that much more pressure on what is already a difficult matchup.
While the Rockets have struggled with size ever since Yao Ming’s tragic and ultimately career-ending injury in 2009, the Jazz remain a team overflowing with frontcourt talent. Their cup runneth over so much, in fact, that trade discussions about their reigning big men has been ongoing for what seems like years. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are both powerful and often unstoppable scoring threats in the frontcourt. And as soon as they sit down, a serviceable starting pair arrives in Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. In their second and third years, respectively, this pair of 3rd overall draftees give the Jazz not only a future at the big man positions, but a depth there that will be hard for Houston to manage.
The continued growth of Gordon Hayward on the wing only increases the scoring threat from the Jazz. With the depth of their 4 and 5 positions, the Jazz have the option of playing forwards such as Marvin Williams and DeMarre Carroll at the 3, leaving Hayward as a 6’8” shooting guard if they choose. Nobody on the Jazz roster may have the 7’ height Omer Asik does, but they can easily trot out lineups in which the point guard is the only player below 6’7”. Smallball may be an increasingly valid strategy in the NBA. Some teams, though, can be muscled with great success, and the Rockets are one of them. The Jazz have adequate defense, and size it takes to shove the Rockets out of their sets and box outs.
If the Rockets are to tie the season series with Utah, they have to not only manage the size advantage, but also simply out-hustle them. The previous matchup saw Houston look sluggish compared to the endless ranks of lanky Jazz players running the floor. The good news is that some of that was attributable to being on the second night of a back to back. Utah also has a decent home court advantage, which won’t be present in Houston. A more rested team with more at stake should at least make the game close.
Utah’s deep bench full of large players contains some very well respected players, but not really any household names. They’re a group which continues to look very good, but not quite great. Houston is similar in that its bench always seems to be deeper than expected, but this year it’s a bit shallow compared to last season’s crew. These Rockets, however, have two household names, and a starting lineup which shows immense promise, barring injuries. This is an age-old rivalry, and this year shouldn’t be any different. This game should be a lot different from the last, though. Houston has actually improved and gelled since the last game, less than two weeks ago, and they need to prove they can start beating Western Conference teams.