A week into the seeding games down in Disney, the quality of play has been very high. Almost all of the 22 teams are competitive on a nightly basis and have brought the drama to most contests. Such high-caliber hoops only shows up when the stakes are high and there's something worth playing for. The NBA gets credit for properly incentivizing all teams in the bubble, but the bloodbath of the standings before the shutdown has led to a frenetic pace in Orlando.
No place has been more of a bloodbath than the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the top seed, but teams 2 through 7 are all jockeying for position with each other. Meanwhile, the race for 8 is wide open and could provide drama until the very last seeding games have been played.
Over the next week, we'll dive one by one into the main contenders to see which teams might give them the most difficult matchups in the postseason. Whether due to matchups, style of play, star power or teams trending upward, we'll dive into a list of who each team would like to avoid most.
Over the last few seasons, the Utah Jazz have been a mainstay in the middle-upper tier of the Western Conference. Their ability to anchor a top-notch defense with Rudy Gobert while Donovan Mitchell emerges as an All-Star scorer has made them one of the better young teams in the league. But Utah has yet to make a postseason push, running into smaller and faster teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets time and time again.
Will the same type of challenge derail them again this year?
Team They're Rooting Against: Houston Rockets
Like clockwork, the postseason brings a Utah-Houston series for what seems like the better part of the last half-decade. It's a rough matchup for the Jazz and it all revolves around Rudy Gobert and exactly what the Rockets do to punish teams who are bigger. This year, it's only more drastic.
Built around the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the Jazz defense is one that funnels drives to the rim where Gobert awaits. He's usually in drop pick-and-roll coverage or sagging off his man. They'll give up a high volume of threes in exchange for protecting the rim; their wings and guards will go over screens and rush to perimeter closeouts, all hoping those threes will turn into pull-up twos or contested floaters over Gobert.
If you watched the Milwaukee Bucks-Houston Rockets matchup from inside the bubble, you see the dangers in being inflexible from a schematic standpoint against Houston. Milwaukee, the NBA's best team who plays the same pick-and-roll defense, lost by four, surrendering 61 3-point attempts to a Houston team content on maximizing corner threes.
Gobert has no business defending on the perimeter and would get blitzed by the footspeed of the frontcourt options Houston boasts. Without Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz lack options for effective small-ball lineups to match. They'll also fall short in a shooting contest without one of their leading offensive weapons.
Who would be the one to guard MVP candidate James Harden? Mike Conley or Joe Ingles are the leading candidates, but even that doesn't inspire a ton of confidence. Add Royce O'Neale or another speciality role player into the mix and that's even less perimeter spacing for Utah at the other end.
Teams who beat Houston combine the ability to shoot with appropriate interior mismatches to take advantage of the size difference. Gobert isn't a frequent post-up threat, nor the skilled back-to-basket scorer that can win matchups with PJ Tucker one-on-one.
We could see this in the 3-6 matchup, but a 4 vs. 5 first-round series is far more likely. I'm not sure the Jazz make it past Houston this year, a terrible matchup for their more conservative play style.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).