PREVIEW: Jazz at Rockets- Jan. 5

Jan 3, 2023; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk (41) congratulates forward Lauri Markkanen (23) after a basket against the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Creveling-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Jazz at Rockets- Jan. 5

The Rockets will look to bounce back from Wednesday’s disaster in New Orleans and try to avoid a sixth straight loss when they host the Utah Jazz on Thursday night at Toyota Center. Four of the Rockets’ five losses on this skid have been by double digits, and they’ve lost 10-of-11.

Eye on the Jazz

Record: 19-21 (10th in Western Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 115.8 (4th)

Defensive rating (rank): 114.9 (27th)

The Jazz have fallen back to Earth after a surprising 10-3 start and will arrive at Toyota Center on a five-game losing skid, though those five losses have come by a combined 15 points. Utah has a 119 defensive rating on their current skid, and they’ve struggled to defend the paint all season, allowing a league-worst 56.1 points in the paint. Collin Sexton, who missed Tuesday’s game against Sacramento, has already been ruled out against the Rockets due to a hamstring injury.

Matchup to watch: Jabari Smith Jr. vs. Lauri Markkanen

The Rockets held Utah’s leading scorer to 14 points on 19 shots the first time they played in October, but Markkanen scored 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting two nights later. With Alperen Sengun and Bruno Fernando unavailable due to injuries, the Rockets downsized and played Smith at center, and Eric Gordon drew the primary assignment on Markkanen. With both centers back and Gordon likely unavailable on the second night of a back-to-back, Smith will likely get the call. He was the Rockets’ second most frequently used defender on Markkanen during the first two games and held him to 3-of-9 shooting when he was the closest defender. Acquired in the Donovan Mitchell trade over the summer, the seventh pick of the 2017 draft is averaging a career-high 24 points this season on 53% shooting, 42% from behind the 3-point line. The Jazz have a 118.2 offensive rating when Markkanen is on the floor and 108.1 when he’s on the bench.

What I’m watching for

The Rockets won’t put out an injury report until Thursday afternoon, but this could be the day Jae’Sean Tate returns to the floor after missing the last 32 games with a right ankle injury. Tate is one of, if not the Rockets’ best defender, and they’ve missed his steadiness and versatility at the offensive end of the floor. His return will make for questions about minutes and rotation spots, but Gordon’s likely absence means Tate can take K.J. Martin’s bench spot since Martin would slide into the starting lineup.

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