These two teams played an epic seven-game series in the first round last postseason and battled closely this regular season, with only six points combined separating them in their three meetings.
This series will be a classic battle between offense and defense -- Houston has the league's second-best defense, and Utah has the league's second-best offense. The Jazz are much more comfortable running and pushing the action offensively, although Houston will play faster than it did in the regular season, with Bobby Jackson replacing Rafer Alston at point guard in at least the first two games.
Houston's defense will be pressured every game with Utah's ball-screen action featuring Deron Williams, who shoots well from the perimeter. The Rockets will have to chase him over the top of screens rather than under. This will force Houston's off-ball defenders to slide toward the screening action and give the Jazz's shooters the space they need to get off clean looks from the 3. Houston will have to change up its rotation strategies to try to keep this Jazz offense off balance.
Mehmet Okur loves taking big shots, and it would not be surprising to see him with the ball in his hands late in games, when the Rockets will have to focus on cutting off the options for Williams and Carlos Boozer.
Houston will look to Tracy McGrady on most of its possessions, asking him to serve as both scorer and playmaker. But he does have some scoring weapons at the power forward position with rookies Luis Scola and Carl Landry. Forcing Boozer to compete hard on defense could help mitigate his offensive efforts and perhaps even get him in foul trouble.
T-Mac took more than six 3s per game against Utah during the regular season but made less than 30 percent. Should he be more committed to driving and posting, he'll get to the line more, and Houston's offense will be much more effective. If he can get enough rest, both on defense and on the bench, he might be able to find the energy to attack the basket relentlessly.
Houston found such great rhythm during its amazing winning streak. If they can win the first two games at home, the Rockets just might catch fire again and find a way to win in Utah.
Jackson: Thrust into the starting lineup after the injury to Alston, this veteran still is a solid 3-point shooter (35.8 percent) and is a blur pushing the ball up the floor. He'll do a decent job of getting the Rockets into their offense and shouldn't have turnover issues or postseason jitters. But he'll have to fight Williams around screens and in the paint all night, which could have an effect on his offensive game.
Williams: One of the league's most improved players, he's now considered a top-flight point guard. His size and willingness to bang inside will cause problems for Houston's point guards, as he'll cut and post or screen and seal. He's very patient using ball-screens and will have the same player screen and re-screen for him while looking for an opening. On the other end, he'll have some tough defensive transition responsibilities while dealing with Jackson's speed.
McGrady: The biggest story of this series is whether T-Mac can help his team earn a playoff series victory. But after last year's shocking Game 7 home loss, I expect him to be numb to that subject and focus only on winning one game at a time. He did not have a great regular season by his standards, but there's no team he likes playing more than Utah -- he averaged 30 points per game on 47 percent shooting against the Jazz. He will get to rest a bit on defense, since neither Brewer nor Kirilenko are primary scorers. For Houston to win, it appears that, once again, T-Mac will have to shoulder much of the offensive load.
Brewer: A long, strong, agile wing player, he could really hurt the Rockets by racing the floor and getting right to the rim. He does most of his damage from the paint, where he's an excellent finisher, and not from the perimeter, where he struggles. He has scored effectively against Houston this season, using sharp cuts to take up space inside. On defense, Brewer is in the top 20 in the league in steals (1.68 per game) and will spend much of his time defending T-Mac, which he can do decently.
Battier: The Rockets need Battier to be a true lockdown defender, and he delivers night after night. The supreme "glue guy" in basketball also can still shoot, hitting 37.7 percent of his 3-point shots this season, 48 percent in April. He averaged 11 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting from the 3 against Utah during the regular season. Since the Jazz don't rely much on their wings to score, Battier will be key in making the necessary rotations to cover Boozer inside and Williams and Okur on the perimeter.
Kirilenko: He bounced back from a tough season a year ago and is shooting, scoring and passing better. He now is able to knock down 3s at about a 40 percent clip, but he doesen't take many. He still is a double threat on defense, averaging more than a steal and a block per game. When he guards Battier, he'll look to roam some and make "help" plays, but that could lead to open 3s for Battier.
Scola: He's no rookie when it comes to important games. Scola needs to be a big weapon for Houston to compete every night. He can score from anywhere inside the 3-point line, and his rebounding efforts against Boozer must be watched closely. He comes into the series more focused on scoring (April has been his best month, at 14 points per game), but defending Boozer every night will be his toughest challenge. Still, Scola is a world-class player who will be very comfortable playing a pivotal role.
Boozer: He now is established as one of the top power forwards in the world. He is a terrific scorer inside, has a solid pick-and-pop game and is a monster rebounder. He played well against Houston during the regular season (20 points per game, 12 rebounds per game), but he kind of disappeared in April, scoring only 13.9 points per game and making only 2.5 trips to the free-throw line per game, half his average. He has a tough time guarding Scola, who is excellent out of the triple threat from the perimeter and terrific at the cutting game. But an engaged Boozer, who is the focal point of the Jazz offense, could be the difference in this series.
Mutombo: Incredibly, he still is a solid rebounder and a force inside defensively. And he filled in beautifully when Yao Ming went down and Houston went on that winning streak for the ages. But in reality, no Rockets player has a tougher assignment than Mutombo, who has to be a force in the paint but also must account for Okur's perimeter shooting. It's too tough a task for him, so don't expect him to play more than 12 to 15 minutes per game.
Okur: He works perfectly with both Boozer and Williams, setting ball screens and popping out behind the arc to stretch the defense and open things up inside for post-ups or slashes. He makes 39 percent of his 3s and is an excellent shooter who's really hot right now -- he's made more than 45 percent of his 3s in March and April. He's not nearly as good around the basket, however. He has improved some as a rebounder (7.7 rebounds per game), but he still struggles defensively and offers little inside but strength and a willingness to play physically.
Chuck Hayes: A hard-nosed defender and rebounder, he'll be called upon to body up Boozer. He's an excellent passer but a poor shooter.
Carl Landry: A top rookie who can make jumpers and tough shots inside, he has strength and quickness, too. He might get more time than Hayes if more scoring is needed.
Luther Head: He's a decent perimeter shooter who can get hot and provide some bench scoring. But he struggles to defend the big, physical Jazz guards.
Aaron Brooks: Yet another important Rockets rookie who exploded in April, he's averaging 10 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the 3. He needs to step up and not turn the ball over while Alston is out.
Loren Woods: He signed just two weeks ago to be insurance inside. He might play in this series because he's much more agile than Mutombo and can play inside and out on defense.
Kyle Korver: His terrific perimeter shooting and overall court game have had a big effect in Utah -- the Jazz are 38-11 since he arrived. But he has not shot well in April, hitting just seven of 22 3s.
Matt Harpring: He's one of the league's toughest and smartest players. He fouls a lot, but typically gets a lot out of each one. He averaged 10 and 5 in just 16 minutes per game against Houston during the regular season.
Paul Millsap: An excellent energy guy, he can affect the game at every level. His matchup with Landry is one of the better sub-stories of this series.
Ronnie Price: He earned the backup point guard position due to his energy and quickness on defense. He is a decent 3-point shooter as well (34.7 percent) and is an outstanding finisher at the rim. He's one of the league's most athletic little guys.
David Thorpe: The Rockets play terrific team basketball, so losing their starting point guard will be tough to overcome. I love their rookies, who bring energy, talent, shot-making ability and even experience to an older group of guys. But Utah is too strong on offense and is the best team in the NBA when playing at home. And I think the Jazz are good enough to find a way to get a road win.
Prediction: Utah 4, Houston 2
Mike Moreau: These teams are so evenly matched I have to look at home-court advantage. And it seems improbable that a team could lose back-to-back Game 7s at home.
Prediction: Houston 4, Utah 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.