Utah (50-32 SU, 44-36-2 ATS) at Houston (53-29 SU, 40-39-3 ATS)
Sunday 9:30 P.M. ET
Free NBA Pick: Rockets ATS
Best Line Offered: Bovada
It took the Rockets a few months to get on track for the season, but the second-half surge up the Western Conference standings netted the respect of a team that pushed Golden State to the brink of elimination before the Warriors rallied and later secured their second championship in succession and third in the span of four years.
Houston not only posted the best record (20-5) in the league following the All-Star break, it ranked second in both offensive (116.0) and defensive (105.3) efficiency while pacing the NBA in net rating (10.7). The Rockets’ exceptional play confirmed their status as championship contenders, but even the most dutiful observers might be unaware of who finished second behind Houston in net rating during the unofficial second half of the season: the Utah Jazz.
On Sunday at Toyota Center, the Rockets will host Utah in Game 1 of this first-round series. These teams met last season in the West semis, with Houston claiming that series in five games. And while the Rockets’ roster has been largely revamped excluding their core, Utah returns with essentially the same rotation that authored one of the bigger surprises last season.
Some of that improvement, at least relative to the matchup with the Rockets, was displayed early in the season when the Jazz claimed the first two meetings with Houston by a total of 38 points. The Rockets would justifiably point out that their current rotation is far healthier and settled compared to those rocky opening weeks when Houston stumbled to an 11-14 start.
The Rockets won their final two meetings with the Jazz during the regular season, and their dramatic second-half improvement on defense remains central to their title hopes. Houston struggled to maintain its aggressive switching defensive style during the first half of the season, with its roster overhaul requiring a span of games for those personnel changes to take hold.
Now that they are whole, with every player aware of their responsibilities, the Rockets have reclaimed their identity with NBA scoring leader James Harden (36.1) leading the way. How Utah handles the Rockets’ physicality could swing the series. The Jazz built their reputation on defensive might, but they recognize the challenge Houston offers.
Houston is 23-16-2 ATS at home this season giving them a major advantage in a game in which they are favored by 6.5 points against the Jazz. Expect the Rockets to start the series off with a big win at home.