Round One Prequel

After clinching home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Houston Rockets close out the regular season Wednesday by visiting the team they'll face in that opening series - the Utah Jazz.

While Utah (50-31) won the Northwest Division, it won't have home court against Houston (52-29) by virtue of the Rockets' superior record. Houston clinched the fourth seed Monday night with a 120-117 victory over Phoenix.

Oddsmakers have made Utah -6.5 point spread favorites (NBA Odds) for todays game, the over/under has been set at 193 total points (View NBA Sports Books). Our public betting information shows that 68% of bets for this game have been placed on Utah -6.5 (View NBA Bet Percentages).

Tracy McGrady had 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, while Yao Ming added 34 points and nine boards to power the Rockets.

"It is huge," said Yao, Houston's top scorer (25.0 points per game) and rebounder (9.4). "We were so excited when the clock was running to zero. It feels like winning a playoff series."

McGrady, second to Yao with 24.6 points and the team leader with 6.5 assists a contest, has never won a playoff series in five tries. His team, though, will have an extra home game in a playoff series for the first time.

"This is one of the greatest accomplishments of my career personally," McGrady said.

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy might opt to rest the All-Star swingman and Yao on Wednesday as Houston gears up for the postseason.

"We've got a lot of studying to do," Van Gundy told the team's official Web site. "We have to obviously play very well against a very good team. This isn't about a crusade to win one series. We want to be a championship-caliber team."

If the coach decides to sit his stars or limit their playing time, Luther Head and Dikembe Mutombo could start in place of McGrady and Yao.

Head, a second-year guard out of Illinois, is averaging 10.8 points and all nine of his starts have come with McGrady out due to injury. Mutombo played in all 33 games Yao missed this season, and is averaging 3.1 points and 6.5 rebounds overall.

Whoever is in the lineup Wednesday will try to help Houston close 2006-07 on a season-high six-game winning streak. The Rockets have won five in a row on two other occasions this season.

Houston has dropped two of three meetings with Utah this season, including an 86-83 home defeat April 1. Yao and McGrady combined for 55 points in that contest.

The Jazz will try to clinch the season series and enter the playoffs with two straight victories after a 1-6 stretch.

Utah started to put the slump behind it Monday by matching its season high for points and shooting percentage (58.4) in a 130-93 rout of Portland.

"We deserved it (the criticism)," coach Jerry Sloan said. "If you can't take criticism, if that's not going to pick you up, make you play a little harder - well then, I feel sorry for you."

Sloan might give Andrei Kirilenko and Gordan Giricek extended playing time Wednesday as he tries to get the two players sharp for the postseason after both returned against the Trail Blazers.

Kirilenko has been bothered by a thumb injury that sidelined him for five games, while Giricek, who had 21 points Monday, has struggled with injuries throughout the season.

By: Marc Young - theSpread.com - Email Us

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