The Houston Rockets (11-12) take on the Utah Jazz (12-13) at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBA TV Canada. These two teams have had less than ideal starts to their season and you could make a case that no other teams have under-achieved more thus far.
This acts as a rematch of last season's Western Conference Semifinals, though they have already faced off once this season. In the fourth game of the year, the Jazz went into Houston and came away with a win over the Rockets, 100-89, behind Donovan Mitchell's best game of the season: 38 points (14-25 FG, 4-9 3PM), seven assists and five rebounds.
He outdueled James Harden, who scored 29 points to go with seven assists and five rebounds. The Rockets' second-leading scorer was Carmelo Anthony with 22 points in 40 minutes off the bench.
20-plus games later, you would have thought these teams would have turned things around by now. Since they have not, that leaves us wondering - will one, neither or both of the Rockets and Jazz qualify for the playoffs this season?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): This is a tough one because of how close the Western Conference playoff picture is right now, but I think they both get in.
Starting with the Rockets - I know it has not been pretty so far and that they've dipped from one of the league's best defences a season ago to one of the worst defences this season, but I trust that they'll turn things around. Their lack of depth has been a huge issue so far but General Manager Daryl Morey has never been bashful in move pieces or acquiring players to make this team a contender and I can't see James Harden or Chris Paul letting this season go to waste, either.
As for the Jazz - I like the Kyle Korver acquisition to add a much-needed perimeter threat and I think that Donovan Mitchell can get things turned around to lead this team in the right direction once again. Like the Rockets, this squad has seen their offence and defence decline from a season ago but with the talent that this roster has, it's hard to believe they'll continue at this mediocre pace all season.
If the season ended today, only three teams that made the playoffs in the West (Warriors, Thunder, Blazers) last year would be in the playoffs this year. In no order, I think those three, along with the Rockets, Jazz, Clippers, Lakers and Nuggets make the playoffs.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I still think they both get in.
As disappointing as the Rockets have been this season, I have a hard time believing a team that has James Harden and Chris Paul won't make the playoffs. That doesn't mean they'll necessarily work their way back to where they were last season - almost at the same level as the Warriors - but they have far too much talent to finish in the bottom half of the Western Conference if they can stay healthy the rest of the way.
The Jazz, meanwhile, have had the second-hardest schedule so far this season and opponents are making shots their defence is designed to give up at a surprisingly high rate. Donovan Mitchell has also been much better lately following a slow start and the recently acquired Kyle Korver fills a huge need, with the Jazz ranking third-last in the league in 3-point percentage prior to the trade.
Plus, both teams are only one game behind the Mavericks, Kings and Timberwolves, who are currently in a three-way tie for the eighth-best record in the conference. The Rockets and Jazz still have a lot of figuring out to do, but it's not like they have a ton of ground to make up.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Houston gets in, but Utah will miss.
There's too much star power - and too short of a window - for this Rockets team to not qualify for the postseason. Chris Paul is 33, James Harden is 29, and Eric Gordon will be 30 before the year ends. As each of the aforementioned three has been on multiple teams that have made runs before, they fully understand the necessary sense of urgency to turn things around here shortly.
While the Jazz made a run last year, I think their youth will ultimately be their downfall in a Western Conference that is unforgiving. Sure, Utah has played just nine of its first 25 games at home, but its record through those nine games is 3-6. It's a small sample size, but it's hard to be confident in the Jazz taking advantage of their home court down the season's stretch run after such a poor start - and that's what it will take to get to the postseason.
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): Both teams are too talented and well-coached to miss out
The Western Conference race is super competitive, but I think that actually works in both teams' favour. The gap between the first and 14th is just a handful of games, so there's plenty of time for both teams to turn things around. More importantly, there's a couple of teams still in the early-season honeymoon phase that will likely regress to the mean. (Shoutout Sacramento and Dallas).
Whilst the Jazz have addressed a big need in acquiring Kyle Korver to boost their three-point shooting arsenal, the elephant in the room is the drastic drop-off defensively. They're not the team that will just pile on the points through 48 minutes and get away with it, so they need to get back to what made them such an annoying matchup last season.
Houston just has too much talent to fail. James Harden is good enough to take a team made up of four dudes from 24 Hour Fitness to the eighth seed and alongside Chris Paul, Capela and Gordon, there's no excuse. Once they settle their rotation and Paul finds his rhythm, they'll be just fine. They might not be the high-octane #2 seed from last year, but this is a playoff team for sure.