Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Are these Rockets as good as last year’s version?

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Houston looks as good as last year’s team in shutting down Jazz. Again. First impressions tend to stick with us. It’s human nature. And our first impressions of this season’s Houston Rockets were not good — a 10-11 team that could not defend, Chris Paul looked like he lost a step, Clint Capela looked like he really enjoyed the offseason, and the result of a few off-season moves meant the Rockets didn’t have the same depth and versatility.

Get those Rockets out of your mind.

The Rockets playing right now — the ones that have gone 20-5 since the All-Star break and are now up 2-0 in the playoffs — are as good as last year’s team. They think better. Either way, this team is a genuine threat to the Golden State Warriors.

Just ask the Utah Jazz. They were 18-7 after the All-Star break with a +9.5 net rating, yet through two games the Rockets have dismantled the Jazz with ease. On Wednesday it was a 118-98 Rockets’ win in a game that stopped being seriously competitive midway through the third quarter.

Through the first three quarters Wednesday, the Jazz shot 35.5 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three, with an offensive rating of just 89.3. Well below a shot per possession. Utah’s offense has one real shot creator in Donovan Mitchell and when a good defense can focus on one guy, it can make his life difficult: Mitchell had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting overall, 1-of-8 from three, with, 6 assists but 4 turnovers.

Also, the Rockets have James Harden.

He is unstoppable right now (and the exception to the lone shot creator note above). Utah switched up its defensive strategy to try to put more pressure on Harden at the point of attack, he almost seemed to prefer that and made his moves, created space, and had his way. Harden had 32 points on 24 shots, was 6-of-13 from three, had 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and none of those numbers do justice to how he dominated the game when he was on the court.

Through two games, Houston has dominated and gotten in Utah’s heads, and the Jazz can’t shoot their way out of it (15-of-65 from three through two games). Utah’s roster limitations are being exploited by Houston and it’s hard to see a path for the Jazz to bounce back, even as they head home for Game 3.

Houston’s real test is next round — they are the only team in the West that can be a threat to Golden State. Last season Houston believed it was the better team (but for one Chris Paul hamstring…), this season nobody thought that about them that way because of that slow start.

It’s time to start thinking of the Rockets that way. This team is legit. They can beat anyone.

2) Playoff Kyrie Irving dominates, Indiana’s offense still just goes flat, and Celtics win 99-91 to go up 2-0. There are two competing storylines in this game. Both are true, but one is more fun while the other has a larger say in how this series is going to end.

The fun part — playoff Kyrie Irving showed up on Wednesday night in Boston. Celtics fans didn’t get to see him last season, but he showed up in Game 2: 37 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists. Most importantly, when the Pacers were ahead in the third quarter and threatening to blow the game open, it was Irving’s offense that kept the Celtics around.

In the fourth, playoff Jayson Tatum — the guy from last playoffs everyone has been waiting to show up all of this season — made an appearance. Tatum finished with 26 points and made some key plays late in the fourth quarter. Irving wasn’t scoring in the fourth, but his presence and the way he dominated the game early had opened up everything for the other Celtics.

The second storyline is that Indiana’s offense without Victor Oladipo is prone to ugly, extended dry spells that will doom them. Indiana led by a dozen points early in the fourth but shot 4-of-17 in the final quarter, and while the Celtics play good defense this is more about Indiana. Bojan Bogdanovic led the way with 23 points and 8 rebounds for the Pacers, but Indy relies on a team approach, with a lot of guys getting some buckets to make the whole thing work. However, for stretches, they struggle with that against good teams, and they don’t have the one guy to turn to stop the bleeding right now.

That will ultimately be Indiana’s downfall in this series.

3) Bucks overwhelm Pistons. Again. I just feel bad for the Pistons — they are better than this. However, without Blake Griffin this is not near the same team, and they were going to struggle with the athleticism and length of the Bucks in the first place. Wednesday it was a 120-99 Milwaukee win to go up 2-0 in the series.

Eric Bledsoe had 27 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 26 points and 12 assists and then there was Khris Middleton with 24 for the Bucks.

The Bucks are gaining a little confidence, which is good because they will need it against the Celtics in the next round.