Golden State Warriors

Likely No. 8 seed is a familiar foe, great matchup for Warriors

And by “great,” I really mean “fortunate.” “Easy,” even. Because even if they defeat the Los Angeles Lakers tonight at Staples, the Utah Jazz probably won’t make the playoffs. That’s because the Houston Rockets, who like the Jazz are 40-41, hold the tiebreaker (conference record, in this case) over Utah.

Tomorrow the Rockets host the Sacramento Kings, who made the trip without DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Darren Collison, Omri Casspi and Marco Belinelli.

Other than the Portland Trailblazers, Utah was the team many figured would give the Warriors the most trouble in a first round series, and the Jazz had a 1.5-game lead over Houston on April 7. But Utah’s last four games (Spurs, Clippers, at Denver, Mavericks) presented a tougher road than what the Rockets faced (at Dallas, Suns, Lakers, at Minnesota), and even though the Rockets somehow lost to Phoenix at home, they went 2-2 over that stretch while the Jazz went 1-3 after losing last night at home to Dallas.

This isn’t great news for folks covering the Warriors, since Houston is a longer flight and no one seems to think much of the city (I’ve never been there, so I can’t speak on the good or bad points of Houston). However, this is fantastic news for the Warriors from a basketball perspective. They were going to advance out of the first round some way or another, but they should find a matchup against Houston far easier to survive without too much exertion.

— Utah’s point differential (+1.9) is higher than that of Portland (+0.7), Memphis (-1.7), Dallas (-0.2) or Houston (-0.2), the current Nos. 5-8 seeds.

— Salt Lake City has the second-highest altitude of all NBA cities.

— None of the bottom four seeds would stand much of a chance of winning a single playoff game at Oracle Arena, but the Jazz could have theoretically won one game at home against the Warriors. Golden State needed a Steph Curry three with less than a minute left to win 106-103 in Utah on Nov. 30, and the Warriors barely beat the Jazz in overtime in Salt Lake City four months later.

— The Warriors beat the Rockets 112-92 the first time they played in Houston this season, and beat the Rockets 114-110 on New Year’s Eve … without Curry.

— The Jazz play the slowest pace in the NBA. The Rockets’ pace is a Warriors-friendly seventh.

— Utah is a young with a big, rangy front line — the kind of team (the Bucks and Timberwolves also fit into this category) that has given the Warriors trouble this season. Rudy Gobert left the arena in a walking boot last night after spraining his ankle, however.

— The Warriors would get past the Jazz in four or five games, but not without some bruises. Besides a cheap shot or two from Dwight Howard or Trevor Ariza (who concussed Klay Thompson with a knee to the head in the Western Conference Finals), a series with Houston wouldn’t be nearly as physical.

There are some concerns for the Warriors if they go against Houston. Patrick Beverley is healthy and playing pretty well, and he has given Curry problems in the past (although Curry hasn’t had much trouble against him recently). The Rockets are also first in steals and opponents’ turnovers — the Warriors only seem to lose to inferior opponents when they’re careless with the ball.

But the Warriors’ main concern isn’t whether they can get out of the first round, it’s how quickly and painlessly. They’ve proven beyond any doubt that they have the Rockets’ number (the Warriors are 11-1 against Houston over the last two seasons, including the playoffs, with an average score of 112.7 to 101.1), and there’s no reason to believe that after such a tumultuous season that Houston is in any kind of position to give Golden State much of a fight. In fact, given the overall makeup of the Rockets, there’s a decent chance they’ll pack it in early on if they sense that they’re overmatched. Plus there’s the Lil B factor.

This isn’t to say Utah is some sort of upset threat, but they would give the Warriors a tougher fight. With future series against the Clippers and either the Thunder or Spurs in Golden State’s future, a breezy first round series is exactly what the Warriors need.

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