Now that the All-Star break is over, the most important part of the NBA season is about to take place. The real contenders will separate from the fake contenders, and the playoff picture will become a lot clearer. Where the Utah Jazz will fall amongst the other teams in the Western Conference will be determined by their performance against teams that they should beat.
Over the last 31 games of the regular season, the Jazz do not play any of the top 5 teams in their conference, and they do not play either of the top 2 teams in the Eastern Conference. With the Jazz sitting in third place of the Western Conference at a record of 32-19, they will mostly be playing teams that have worse records than they do. However, just because they might have a better record than another team, that does not guarantee a victory. The key is playing with desire and not overlooking opponents. The Jazz need to treat each team with the respect they deserve, and they need to realize that each game could be the difference in their season.
The first team that the Jazz will need to handle post All-Star break is the Houston Rockets. With the Rockets sitting 6 spots below the Jazz in the Western Conference, this looks like a cake-walk for Utah. However, if each team erased its last 10 games, the Jazz and the Rockets would be tied with identical 23-18 records. But as most of you know, the Jazz went 9-1 in their last 10 games, in a stretch that possibly changed the face of their season. The Rockets conversely, went 4-6 and dropped to 9th place in the Western Conference.
If those last 10 games are true indicators for how these teams will finish the regular season, the Jazz are in great shape, whereas the Rockets could be stumbling all the way to a rough finish. But each team understands that they can make a real difference if they start the “second half” of the season on the right foot. The Jazz and the Rockets are each coming off of tough losses in their last game, and they are both hoping for very different results in this contest. The Jazz had their 9-game winning streak snapped at the hands of the shorthanded Lakers, and the Rockets tied a franchise-low when they put up just 66 points in a loss to the Heat.
In my opinion, this game will come down to 2 key matchups: Deron Williams versus Aaron Brooks and Andrei Kirilenko versus Trevor Ariza.
In their last meeting, Aaron Brooks outscored Deron Williams by one point, as Brooks’ Rockets beat the Jazz 113-96. Obviously, point guards like Brooks and Williams have a big effect on the way their respective teams play. They are both true leaders, and they are both instrumental in setting the tone for their respective teams. Brooks can go on a scoring tear on any given night, and that can carry over to the rest of his teammates in a positive way. Williams, though, will get his points, plus he will have double-digit assists, getting his teammates involved in the flow of the game. Each way of leading a team works, but on this night only one of those ways will win out. (I’m leaning towards Williams).
My next key matchup involves Andrei Kirilenko and Trevor Ariza. The reason I think this could be a difference in this game is because each of these players play similar roles on their teams. When either of these guys has a great game, chances are that their team will leave with a victory. Because they hustle so much, make huge defensive plays, and finish so strongly at the rim, they have the power to shift momentum better than any other players on their teams, and that is a huge factor when it comes to winning basketball games. In Utah’s recent streak, the difference was undoubtedly AK, as he was inserted into the starting lineup in that point in time. He has played with passion, and he has made the game-changing plays that have lifted Utah to victory time and time again. If Ariza could out-duel Kirilenko and give the Rockets the momentum they need to control the game, the Rockets could very well steal this game. Of course, if the opposite happens, the Jazz should roll easily.
If I had to pick a winner in this one, I would have to go with the Jazz. They are playing at an extremely high level, and there is no question that Jerry Sloan will have them motivated, especially after that loss to the Lakers. Also, I believe that Deron Williams has truly turned a corner, and he is ready to take this team to the next level. All of that will begin to show itself with a victory in Houston against the Rockets.
– The Rockets bench outscored the Jazz’s bench 40-13 in their last meeting.
– The Knicks are close to acquiring Tracy McGrady from the Rockets.
– The Jazz are 13-2 in their last 15 games.
– The Jazz are 4-1 in their last 5 road games.
– Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier were teammates at Duke.