at UTAH JAZZ
Tip-off: Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
Can the Jazz slow down the seemingly unstoppable Rockets?A seven-game win streak is one thing? But how about a seven-game win streak in which none of the victories have come by less than 14 points, or in which five of those victories have come by at least 20 points? That's the nature of the Houston Rockets' current streak, and their utter dominance has propelled them to an 18-4 record that is the best in the Western Conference. And while they've been hot the entire season thus far, the fact that they haven't missed a step since PG Chris Paul first entered the lineup after recovering from an injury—and have, in fact, looked even stronger—is obviously encouraging. Houston returns to the floor on Thursday night in Utah, where they'll take on a Jazz team that is searching for an identity after losing SF Gordon Hayward to free agency and reintroducing C Rudy Gobert to the lineup after an 11-game injury absence. At 13-12, early signs point to the Jazz fighting for a lower-tier seed in the Western Conference playoffs as the season goes on. Houston PF Ryan Anderson and Utah SG Rodney Hood are both questionable for Thursday night's game.
Given that Paul's offense is not running entirely through him for the first time in his career, it is impressive and admirable how well he has gone with the flow in his seven post-injury games in Houston. He has attempted as few as seven shots in a game twice, but put up 17 in a 21-point performance in a 118-95 victory over the Lakers on Sunday night. He has posted double-digit assists in four of those seven games. Anyone who thought SG James Harden might see reduced usage has been proven wrong, as the ball-dominant guard leads the league with a 31.7 PPG average. He went off against the Lakers with 36 points, but the performance wasn't particularly unusual for him—a dominant month of November saw him drop 56 points and 48 points in two different games, the first of which came in a blowout win over the Jazz. He also nearly leads the league with 9.7 APG. Houston destroyed the NBA record for 3PA last season in hoisting up 40.3 treys per game, and they're on pace to shatter that mark this year at 44.0. It's largely the same cast of characters as from a year ago, including SG Eric Gordon, SF Trevor Ariza and Anderson. Gordon had 22 points against LA despite shooting only 2-of-9 from deep, showing he's more than a one-dimensional player. 23-year-old C Clint Capela continues to grow into a beast in the post, and he had back-to-back 20-point games last week, playing fewer than 30 minutes in each of them. SF PJ Tucker and PF Luc Mbah a Moute each get 25-plus MPG to operate primarily as defenders.
Utah has been careful with Gobert since his return from a knee injury, playing him 21 minutes against the Wizards on Monday and 27 minutes against Oklahoma City on Tuesday (a 47-point win and six-point loss, respectively). He's had no more than five points in either game, although has been strong on the boards, and his sheer size serves as a deterrent to slashing guards and forwards. The fact that the Jazz ramped up his minutes on the second night of a back-to-back means the team likely thinks he's ready to return in full force sooner than later. The team seemed to grow in his absence, particularly rookie SG Donovan Mitchell. The 13th overall pick in this past summer's draft has now scored 20 points in four straight games, becoming the first Jazz rookie to do so since the 1980-81 season. And somehow, his 31 points against OKC on Monday weren't the highlight of that stretch. His coming-out party came on Friday against New Orleans, when he dropped 41 points in a hard-fought win. Projected forward, the rate at which he's improved already in the league offers some tantalizing possibilities for Jazz fans. Hood is still the team's leading per-game scorer on the year at 17.7 PPG, but he has missed five games in a row now with an ankle injury. SG Alec Burks has seen increased time in an absence, and the career 10 PPG scorer has been a revelation, scoring at least 24 points in a three-game stretch ending on Monday versus Washington. If he can play anywhere near that level from here on out, a Jazz offense that looked pretty anemic suddenly has some exciting scoring options.