HOUSTON -- The celebration in Salt Lake City, well-deserved following a tense and hard-fought series victory over Oklahoma City, went from unbridled to muted on Saturday with the news that Utah Jazz starting point guard Ricky Rubio could miss up to 10 days with a left hamstring injury.
Rubio has been declared out for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal series against Houston Rockets, which is set to commence on Sunday at Toyota Center.
Rubio enjoyed a spike in productivity in his first season with the Jazz, posting career highs in points (13.1) and effective field goal percentage (47.6). His triple-double (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) in Game 3 against the Thunder enabled Utah to wrest control of the series, a stranglehold it did not relinquish in claiming the series in six games. Rubio sustained the injury early in Game 6.
The loss of Rubio stacked on top of the quick turnaround makes for an arduous chore.
"I think playing Houston is a challenge in and of itself," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "Our staff is prepared and we will be able to give all that to our team. They're such a unique team that I don't know how you ... we have to compete is the main thing.
"Whatever the game planning and all those things, like I said, they're so good. They've been the best team in the league all year. They beat us and we know how good they are. We'll just do what we can to get ready and get out there and try not to think about being fatigued or anything like that. Get healthy, try to get our minds right, and compete and see where it goes."
With Rubio sidelined, the Jazz opted to split facilitating duties between dynamic rookie guard Donovan Mitchell and savvy veteran wing Joe Ingles. The results were mixed, with Utah bogging down for spells, allowing the Thunder to close to within a single possession in the latter stages.
"We've been a great team all year sticking together through the ups and downs," Ingles said. "(Game 6) was just another example of that."
The Rockets held a decisive advantage entering the series even before the Rubio news. Houston swept the four-game season series by an average of 17.5 points. The Rockets won the last meeting on Feb. 26 despite the absences of Clint Capela and Eric Gordon, who scored a season-high 33 points in the Rockets' 120-99 victory over the Jazz on Dec. 18, the only game of the series that Gobert, a Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner, missed.
Rockets guard James Harden, the leading candidate to claim league MVP honors, averaged 34.3 points (with an impressive .554/.432/.907 slash line), 6.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists against Utah. In their first-round series against Minnesota, the Rockets adjusted to Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns dropping back to protect the paint from Harden rim runs, a strategy that enjoyed moderate success but could prove more effective with Gobert defending the rim.
"They've got scrappy defenders and they funnel everything to Gobert, a 7-foot-2 guy that's top three in shot-blocking contesting and making shots tough," Harden said.
"That series helped us a little bit in the sense that a big is back, Gobert is going to be back. Defensively Gobert is better (than Towns). It prepared us a little bit in that aspect but we're ready for anything. We've seen a lot of different defenses all year. We just watch film and figure out ways to attack."
Houston received a measure of good news in advance of the series opener, elevating reserve forward Luc Mbah a Moute to questionable with a right shoulder injury. Mbah a Moute missed the first-round series after dislocating his shoulder in the penultimate game of the season.