April 21, 2007, 2:12AM
Rockets vs. Jazz: How they match up

Center: Okur vs. Yao

Mehmet Okur has had a career year, with too much range for most centers and too much size for most forwards. Yao Ming, the league's top-scoring center each of the past two seasons, has returned to his offensive form before his injury. Yao likely will match up more against Carlos Boozer to be able to stay inside, with Okur, Boozer and Jarron Collins taking turns on Yao.

Edge: Rockets

Power forward: Boozer vs. Hayes

As much as anyone, Boozer's relative good health this season has keyed the Jazz turnaround. Boozer was an All-Star this season and has had a breakthrough season. The Rockets' Chuck Hayes, in just his second season, became the starter as a complement to Yao Ming. An energetic rebounder and strong defender, he added an ability to cut to take passes inside from Tracy McGrady.

Edge: Jazz.

Small forward: Kirilenko vs. Battier

With Andrei Kirilenko coming back Monday, the Jazz get an active shot-blocking and rebounding force, even though he has struggled at times. The Rockets' Shane Battier has had a similar impact defensively and his best season from beyond the arc.

Edge: Rockets.

Shooting guard: Fisher vs. McGrady

After one season with Golden State, Derek Fisher, long a clutch postseason player, has helped stabilize the Jazz's backcourt even though he struggled with his shot in April. Tracy McGrady came back from last season's back spasms to become as much of a driving force as a playmaker as he is as a scorer.

Edge: Rockets.

Point guard: Williams vs. Alston

Deron Williams has grown into one of the league's top young point guards, enough for Jerry Sloan to go back to much of the offense as he ran it with John Stockton as the Jazz have become one of the league's most efficient offensive teams. Rafer Alston has done well running the offense and limiting turnovers, but he can be incredibly streaky with his shot.

Edge: Jazz.

Bench: Jazz vs. Rockets

With Andrei Kirilenko and Gordan Giricek returning from injuries, Matt Harpring moves back to coming off the bench and the Jazz get deeper and stronger off the bench. Jarron Collins can add some defensive help on Yao Ming. Luther Head had an outstanding season from 3-point range with Juwan Howard and Dikembe Mutombo often providing a needed lift. Basically, Head and Harpring, and Giricek and Howard cancel each other out, with Mutombo getting the edge on Collins.

Edge: Rockets.

Coach: Sloan vs. Van Gundy

Jerry Sloan is fourth in wins among active coaches, twice taking the Jazz to the NBA Finals. Despite missing Yao, McGrady or both for half the season, Jeff Van Gundy has led the Rockets to their best record since 1996-97, and he also has taken a team — the 1999 New York Knicks — to the Finals. Both have their teams playing their way and seem to have the complete confidence of their players, with Sloan getting the edge in seniority.

Edge: Jazz.

Prediction: Rockets in seven.

Posted by Third Eye

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