The Houston Rockets' second-half surge up the Western Conference standings netted the respect befitting 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.
"We've pretty much got the same group," Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. "Same group of guys with one more year of experience. Donovan (Mitchell) is a better player than he was last year. I'm a better player than I was last year. Jae (Crowder) is a better player than he was last year. If you get the same group with a year of playing together, a year of going through a lot of things, going through ups, going through downs, I think we're better as a group than we were last year."
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.
Incrementally, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey rebuilt his roster, jettisoning his offseason acquisitions (Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis III) and replacing them with veterans who proved to be superior fits: Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert.
"I think we've played really well since the All-Star break," Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. "We've had a couple bad times but put it together and put our team in a good spot. So, going into the playoffs, our team is healthy. Everybody's got a good mindset, and we're ready to go."
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.
"We have to play through the grabbing," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "We shot more free throws against them (30.5 per game) than any team in the league that we played this year, so we have to make free throws. We have to have a mentality that it's looking outward for help. We have to find that from within and control the things that we can control."
--Field Level Media