Jazz Comeback Falls Short in 101 – 112 Loss to Rockets

December 8th, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

Like the rest of his teammates, Derrick Favors (15) couldn’t stay in front of James Harden in Utah’s 11-point loss to the West-leading Rockets. (Rick Bowmer).

Story of the Game

There is a good argument that the Rockets entered this game as the best team in the NBA. They brought not only the Western Conference’s highest winning percentage into the contest but also a league-record seven straight victories by 15 or more points. While Utah was able to snap that last string, that fact is largely cosmetic as the Rockets easily outclassed the Jazz tonight.

It appeared the end might be different in the first half. Neither team lit up the scoreboard, each shooting 45 percent from the field and in the mid- to low-thirties from three.1.

Then in the third quarter the Rockets launched, literally, over and over again from deep. They made seven threes on 13 attempts, fueling a 37-point quarter. Six of those threes came from James Harden and Ryan Anderson. Utah simply couldn’t keep pace, missing six of their eight long range attempts in the quarter and shooting only 32 percent from the field overall in the period.

The end result was a 22-point deficit the Jazz would never really threaten. A determined fourth quarter, fueled by lackluster energy by the Rockets and more aggressive defense by Utah, saved some face as the Jazz won the quarter 35 to 24. But nothing was really threatened but the Rockets’ streak of consecutive 15-point blowouts.

What, if any, positives Utah takes from that is questionable. What is not debatable is that the Jazz have played two of the more talented teams in the West in the last two games and lost both.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Donovan Mitchell

While Mitchell didn’t have a hyper-efficient night like his best recent games, taking 19 shots, he did score 26 on a respectable two of six from three and a stellar six of six from the free throw line. He also chipped in four rebounds, four assists, and a steal, totaling what has become a fairly typical game for the NBA’s latest rookie sensation. Mitchell once again led the team in minutes played and, in a remarkable but also troubling trend, went for large spurts of the game as the team’s only real offensive creator and driver. Since November 25th,  Mitchell is tenth in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game. That’s right behind Kevin Durant. That he’s so excellent so often should not cause anyone to take what we’re seeing for granted. This really might be the best rookie in the history of the franchise.

Secondary Star: Alec Burks

If it weren’t for Mitchell blowing the NBA’s collective mind, Burks may be a national story. A player essentially written off as a wreck of spare parts has recently settled into one of Utah’s best players. He produced another efficient scoring night of 17 points on 12 shots, making two more threes on five attempts and cashing in three of four free throw attempts. Add in three assists, two steals, and a rebound, and Burks has now been the team’s best player not named Mitchell in the last two weeks.

Secret Star: Thabo Sefolosha

14 points on nine shots. Two of four from three. Two of two from the line. Five rebounds, and an assist, a steal, and a block. Plus-12 in 26 minutes, far and away the best mark on the team. I think there’s now enough evidence to say with confidence that Utah is simply better when Sefolosha is on the floor. Whether at the three or four matters less than that he’s in the game. At 33, Quin Snyder may be wise keeping his minutes around the 21-minute mark, but I suspect that number will jump up, even once Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson return. The guy has simply been a difference maker too often not to get him on the floor more often.

Stats of the Game

6 – Advantage in points the Jazz had in this game outside of the third quarter. Against offense teams like Houston or Golden State, it only takes one quarter to essentially kill your chance to win.

9 – Rockets advantage on points off of turnovers, a stat that typically favors Utah.

7:23 – Time left in the third quarter when Anderson missed his first shot of the night. To that point he had made all eight of his field goal attempts, including five threes, for 21 points.

13/3 – Respective assists by Chris Paul and Harden. This illustrates one of the real differences in Houston this year. In seasons past, the burden on Harden to propel the offense was so great he could score 29 like tonight but still lose games if he didn’t add on double digit assists. Now Paul can take some of that load, which should help Harden be less fatigued when the playoffs come.

9 – Jazz players with an assist, though none managed more than four. They tried to match Houston’s offense but just simply didn’t make enough shots.

Sundries

  • As a longtime skeptic of both Mike D’Antoni and James Harden, their respective failures in the playoffs have never surprised me. But for the first time I think this Rockets team just might be able to break that trend. Daryl Morrey has very astutely given D’Antoni a number of tough, self-motivated defenders in Paul, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker, and Clint Capela. Those players combined for eight steals and three blocks tonight and have the mentality that invites players like Eric Gordon and even Harden (at times) to up his defensive effort. They will also bring that impact to the playoffs, where Paul’s ability to get efficient points from the midrange could be invaluable as well. While I’d still take Golden State in a seven-game series, these Rockets are a legitimate contender.
  • Two losses to talented teams–teams more talented than Utah, to be honest–shouldn’t cause Jazz fans to lose sight of what is a really a fantastic development this season: the offensive potency of Mitchell and Burks. Both players have shot the ball well from three point range while proving capable of finishing at the rim and getting to the free throw line. Neither of Utah’s starting guard tandem to start the season, Ricky Rubio or Rodney Hood, had proven that combination. Where the team looked like it may have no ball handler capable of scoring both near and far, they now have two.
  • Watching the Rockets play powerfully illustrated just how much chemistry this Jazz roster has yet to develop. It’s not that Utah played out of sync. As their wide variety of players with an assist shows, they ran their offense fairly well. The difference is that Utah clearly has to try to run the offense, to focus on doing so; the Rockets play their system so naturally it’s basically instinct. A perplexing six days without a game for Houston, allowing for more practice than is ever possible in the NBA, contributed to that, as does having two superstars to orchestrate offense. But every contributing Houston player instinctually fills his role on that team. Very little deliberation is required.
  • In contrast, Utah has a number of players who aren’t easily fitting into clearly defined and well-suited roles: Rubio, who had 11 points and only a single assist tonight, has become some frightful parody of a shooting guard the offense tries to hide; Favors is getting power forward minutes in a manner that clearly shows his team doesn’t fully trust him in that position; a 21-year-old rookie is being asked not only to shoulder the role of primary scorer and offensive orchestrator on a playoff-aspiring team, which is stunning in and of itself, but he’s also often defending the opposing team’s most dynamic guard, like James Harden tonight; and very quietly Rudy Gobert is struggling to re-integrate back into prominence, especially offensively, where he is averaging only five points on just under four shots per game since his return.
  • As if this friction with roles wasn’t perplexing enough, add some tough questions Snyder will have to answer going forward this season. Can he really keep starting Rubio and playing him 25 minutes a night when there’s a good argument ALL of Mitchell, Burks, and Neto are playing better than the Spaniard? Adding Hood back into the mix will only make those minutes more heavily contested. Will it really make sense to bring both Hood and Burks off the bench? Harden skipped by Joe Ingles and Mitchell a number of times tonight for wide, WIDE open layups. Sefolosha appeared far and away the most capable Jazz defenders in his minutes against the perennial MVP candidate. Will Snyder move his best wing defender into the starting lineup when needed if it means benching Joe Ingles or Derrick Favors and/or shifting Jonus Jerebko and eventually Joe Johnson down the pecking order in terms of playing time? And speaking of Johnson, how will the methodical iso- and post-heavy scorer be used in an offense that has recently turned potent through constant movement of the ball? Favors and Gobert combined for 11 points on nine shots tonight. Is a team with those talents really going to funnel so little offense through such efficient inside scorers? If that’s to be corrected, how will the team increase those interior attempts while still shooting the number of threes that have fueled their recent offense?

While 13 and 13 is a respectable record given all that’s befallen the Jazz this season, they’re going to have to answer a number of these questions in the month of December if they want a real shot at making the playoffs. Maybe they can make progress in their day off tomorrow before the next day’s contest in Milwaukee against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

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.
Clint Johnson

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3 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Morning Clint. Lots of good analysis here. Rudy looks awkward running compared to last year or early in the season. The total lack of interior scoring b the bigs including Jerebko is not giving much credence to playing two bigs. The number of passes inside, after Rudy’s uncharacteristic poor handle, at least from last year, makes the posts nod off on offense. Derrick was wide open in the corner and the pass went to a covered guard? The rebounding is the real tale of the tape. The Rockets out rebounded the Jazz by 14. The other stats were very similar except for the # of threes made. The offense tends to get way too one on one . Time for Quin to make some decisions on starters and Rubio should not be one unless he is surrounded by 4 shooters. Neto was having gOod time on the court and was pulled for???? The coaching staff needs to look at what the Jazz have and make the decisions for the Jazz. Burks is a real positive. Still makes mistakes but less and his positives are so much better. Thanks.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      There are some tough decisions to make, clearly. Many are actually pretty good decisions to have, as I still quite like this team. Getting players sold on their best roles for the team and adapting schemes to better fit personnel are probably the two most challenging. Personally, I expect the front office to try to lessen some of the pressure on Snyder in regard to the first via trade.

      • John Jenkins says:

        Yep on this I agree. Would hate to lose Derrick Favors. He has played with little or no complaints. His abilities are unique if used right I think. Time will tell the tale.

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