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Utah Jazz

Evaluating the Utah Jazz's potential first round matchups

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The Jazz are one of the league's hottest teams heading into the playoffs (NBA Getty Images)

The Western Conference playoff picture has started to take shape but with a handful of games left to go in the regular season, a lot is left to be decided. The Utah Jazz have comfortably been in the middle of the West playoffs for some time now but their first-round destiny is still up in the air.

The Jazz are 49-30 and, barring a three-game losing streak to end the season, are likely assured a spot in either the three-six or four-five matchup. With three opponents still plausibly on the table for round one, it's worth looking at each of those teams and where Utah would stand going into each matchup.

Houston Rockets - Current No. 3 Seed (52-28)

The Rockets and Jazz split their four-game series this season but just one of those games came in the last three months. The first three games - including both of Utah's wins - came before Christmas as both teams were in the midst of surprisingly slow starts, but there is still a lot to learn from those games.

It's clear that the Rockets would be the toughest matchup in round one. Houston does a great job of mitigating many of Utah's defensive strengths. Rudy Gobert might be the league's preeminent rim protector but the Rockets take the fifth-fewest shots at the rim. When they do shoot in the paint, it's often an uncontested layup or a lob to the centre after James Harden or Chris Paul has forced the center to come over and help on their drive.

During the regular season, Houston's path to victory against Utah became clear. The Rockets shot 35 free throws per game in their wins. In their losses, they shot just 15.5. The patience required to defend Harden without fouling presents a special challenge to defences, but it's a crucial step to beating the Rockets. That challenge is why this series more than any other would underline the absence of the injured Dante Exum.

Exum was fantastic defending Harden in last year's playoffs. He used his length to contest Harden's step-back and was quick enough to prevent easy lanes to the basket. Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell are outstanding defenders in their own right and are capable of making Harden work for his points, but foul trouble can snowball against the Rockets and the Jazz could really be hurt by the diminished guard depth.

The Rockets would likely enter this series as favourites based on the results of last season, but the Jazz could absolutely win this series. Utah is a year older and better and Houston isn't the same 65-win juggernaut. The Jazz would have a lot more confidence going into this series, but this would still be an incredibly tough first-round matchup.

Portland Trail Blazers - Current No. 4 Seed (50-29)

Utah and Portland also split their series 2-2 and, if the season ended today, they would meet in the four-five matchup. Given that these teams also split their series last season, the two seem incredibly well-matched. With the uncertainty surrounding the Trail Blazers, however, it's difficult to know just how much to take from those past results.

Jusuf Nurkic's injury has left a hole in the middle of Portland's lineup and it would be asking a lot of Enes Kanter to hold his own against Gobert. Additionally, CJ McCollum's status remains uncertain as he has yet to return from the knee strain that has kept him out of Portland's last nine games.

With Nurkic out and McCollum working his way back to 100 percent, Portland's hopes would rest with Damian Lillard. The Blazers have gone as far as Lillard has taken them against the Jazz. In Portland's two wins this season he averaged 31 points and 9.5 assists, and just 19.5 points and 3.0 assists in their losses.

If this matchup does happen, Utah has a defensive blueprint to follow. New Orleans swept Portland in the first round last season and were extremely successful in pressuring and putting bigger defenders on the Blazer backcourt. If McCollum isn't back to full strength, Lillard alone might not be enough firepower to overcome Utah's second-ranked defence.

Los Angeles Clippers - Current No. 6 Seed (47-33)

It's remarkable how much has changed for both teams since they met in round one two seasons ago. Unlike in 2017, however, Utah is the team with more playoff experience and would likely enter as the favourite.

These teams do have one final meeting next week but the first two matchups have both gone Utah's way by an average of 13 points. Gobert dominated both ends of the court in those games, averaging 21.5 points, 17.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. The Clippers don't have a traditional defensive big man and Gobert's dominance would likely continue if this matchup occurred. The true X-Factor of this series, though, would likely be Joe Ingles.

LA doesn't have a ton of perimeter defensive talent and, with Patrick Beverley likely locked onto Mitchell, Ingles should have lots of opportunities as a secondary creator. He is averaging a career-high 5.6 assists per game but has put up 14 assists in the two games against the Clippers.

The Clippers have an average overall defence but do hold opponents to the fourth-lowest three-point percentage (30.0 percent). Despite victories in both games, Utah hit just 11 threes in each, slightly below their season average of 12.0 per game. Ingles should have chances to knock down his own shots and, if he can continue to create open looks for Mitchell, Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder, that could push Utah over the edge in this matchup.

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