Jazz Again Smothered by Houston D, Trail 3 Games to 1

May 6th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

The Houston Rockets’s James Harden (13) stares down the Utah Jazz’s Royce O’Neale (23) in Houston’s 100 – 87 Game 4 victory, giving them a commanding 3 – 1 lead in the series. (Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Story of the Game

The Utah Jazz brought the league’s most vaunted defense into this Second Round matchup with the Houston Rockets, a team most noted for their offense. But Houston’s 100 – 87 victory, it’s second straight on the road in Salt Lake City, cemented that this is not the Rockets team of years passed, for whom defense was an afterthought. Instead, the Rockets have taken command of the series by beating the Jazz using their own game: lockdown defense.

For the second game in a row, Utah could get nothing going offensively despite playing on their home court. The Jazz scored only 87 points after shooting 39 percent from the field and a measly 24 percent from three. 

While James Harden and Chris Paul, who combined for 51 points, 16 rebounds, and nine assists, garner most of the buzz for the Rockets, a good case can be made that their most valuable player this series has been Clint Capela, their center. Capela had been winning his matchup with all-league rival Rudy Gobert, and tonight he dominated, scoring 12 points, grabbing 15 rebounds, and swatting six shots while contesting numerous others.

With Capela, not Gobert, being the greatest paint deterrent in the series, and Houston’s bevy of physical defenders bodying up Jazz ball handlers, Utah again missed a parade of shots at and near the rim, likely costing themselves the game and this series. The Jazz game plan was to heap shot after shot right atop the rim, which is exactly what they did. 54 of Utah’s field goal attempts came in the paint, yet they managed only 50 points on those shots. Less than a point per shot on layups isn’t good enough to beat arguably the best team in the NBA.

To their credit, the Jazz never quit despite the Rockets taking a double-figure lead early in the game and never really relinquishing it. Utah kept fighting back, including an 18 to six burst in the fourth quarter that cut the lead to nine. But at that point Donovan Mitchell, who led Utah with 25 points, missed a layup. Royce O’Neale followed that up with a missed five foot runner. A corner three by Trevor Ariza immediately after kicked the lead back up to 10, essentially ending Utah’s chances this game and, for all intents and purposes, in the series.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Donovan Mitchell (25 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, 2 threes, 7 free throws)

Mitchell gave the Jazz his best scoring game of the series when they demanded it of him. It wasn’t enough, but that is largely because the Rockets completely shut down Mitchell’s teammates, leaving the rookie to carry an offense, in the playoffs, against one of the better defenses in the league. Mitchell showed up better against a superior opponent than any of his teammates, overcoming much of his struggles this series in the process. The game is a loss, but that can’t be laid at the rookie phenom’s door.

Secondary Star: Joe Ingles (15 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 2 threes)

Ingles gave everything he had in a team-high 41 minutes of play. His long range shot wasn’t at its best, as it took him seven attempts to make a pair of threes, but he fought through physical defense repeatedly trying to finish at the rim. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but he never let up despite his athletic limitations, which have obviously made things hard on Ingles these two series against physical playoff defenders with greater speed than the Aussie. His four assists also led the team.

Secret Star: Derrick Favors (5 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, +14) and Dante Exum (9 points, 1 assist)

The Jazz actually received solid contributions from players not necessarily expected to contribute this degree. Despite ankle soreness, Favors made a substantial difference playing center against the Rockets’s backup lineups, anchoring the Jazz defense with a personal defensive rating of 84.1, easily a team best in the game. He played only 16 minutes, as predicted as he entered the contest on a minutes restriction, but the Jazz outscored Houston by 14 in that stretch.

Exum continued what has been something of a showcase for the oft-injured enigma, continuing the defense on Harden that has earned national acclaim while carrying the Jazz offense in the first quarter with nine points. The lanky, quicksilver guard got to the rim repeatedly against a defense not expecting such a paint threat outside of Mitchell. Unfortunately, he also left the game with an injured hamstring in the third quarter1. If Exum doesn’t play again this series, he ends the year as the same conundrum he’s posed his entire career: tantalizing glimpses of greatness always interrupted by injury. What his future is in free agency is anyone’s guess.

Stats of the Game

Houston’s defense in Games 3 and 4 in Utah was brilliant, as illustrated by the following Jazz statistics in those games compared to their season averages:

Points Scored: 89.5 / 104.1

Offensive Rating: 88.4 / 106.2

True Shooting Percentage: 49.1 percent / 56.4 percent

Assists: 16.5 / 22.4

Turnovers: 16.5 / 14.7

Free Throws Attempts: 17.5 / 21.5

Sundries

  • The Rockets have done something to the Jazz they’ve never encountered before: erased the Gobert effect. The Stifle Tower is likely to win Defensive Player of the Year despite missing 26 games because of his ability to change a game defensively. Utah turned their season around when Gobert returned following two early season knee injuries. That impact has all but disappeared in this series. Gobert was a minus-27 tonight and is a team-worst minus-64 in the four games. Gobert is renowned for his uncanny ability to defend multiple players near him simultaneously, but that ability has caved against the Harden/Paul and Capela pick and roll. The Jazz ask Gobert to shoulder so much responsibility on defense, and he’s always lived up to the task this year. Against the Rockets’s offense, the challenge has been just too much.
  • The Jazz have all but abandoned their motion offense. They simply can’t force the Rockets’s switching defense into compromised position. In Game 2, they punished Houston’s aggressive perimeter defenders by slipping screens, which allowed Mitchell to puncture the defense with 11 assists. But by lessening their aggression on screens but still physically contesting Jazz player motion all over the court, Houston has essentially forced the Jazz to mirror Houston’s offense attack of a ball handler, nearly always Mitchell, either off screens or in isolation. In that contest, the Jazz are going to lose. Ingles does his best to shoulder some of the load but simply doesn’t outmatch Houston’s defenders when asked to play that way, which leaves Mitchell trying to match both Harden and Paul. Moreover, Utah lacks Houston’s shooters and so Mitchell is always playing in a muddy paint when he penetrates, whereas Harden and Paul often have space to choose what to do once in the defensive interior. As gutsy and talented as Mitchell is, it’s a contest he can’t win.
  • Houston’s general manager Daryl Morey went and got Chris Paul for this game. Harden left the post-season last year with a whimper, clearly exhausted from being the only offensive driver Houston had. In the second half tonight, Harden managed only six points and one assist on two of eight shooting while committing five turnovers. Meanwhile, Paul scored 15 points in the half and added four assists. When one falters, the other can carry the offense.
  • The Jazz aren’t losing this series because Houston has out-shot them. The Rockets are making 12 threes a game and shooting less than 34 percent from long range. Utah is making 10 threes a game on nearly 36 percent shooting from deep. Houston is winning because they’re outplaying Utah defensively and because they’re controlling the ball, which is helping them get 88 shots at the rim to Utah’s fewer than 82. Capela has been dominant while Gobert has struggled. PJ Tucker has been awesome, providing nasty defense while making 44 percent of his threes, while Ariza has afflicted Mitchell defensively while also providing excellent help. Harden and Paul are being countered by a rookie. The Rockets are winning because they have more players playing better on both sides of the ball. Because they are a better team.

Utah had a chance to even the series tonight, as they held the Rockets’s vaunted offense to 100 points. But their offense, which was always the question about this team, simply couldn’t muster enough points against a talented and motivated team. After losing two games at home after stealing home court from the playoff’s number one overall ranked team, it’s highly improbable that the Jazz will manage a second win in Houston in Game 5.

But improbable doesn’t mean impossible, and there’s no question this Jazz team will have no intention of quietly letting their season end on Tuesday. After all, improbable hasn’t stopped them to this point this season. Why let it start now? 

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

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