Jazz Measure Far Short of Rockets in 96 – 110 Game 1 Loss

April 29th, 2018 | by Clint Johnson

The Houston Rockets’s James Harden (13) glides between the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors (15) for two of his game-high 41 points in Houston’s Game 1 victory. (Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle)

Story of the Game

The Utah Jazz advanced to the second round of the NBA Playoffs for the second straight year by eliminating the defending league MVP Russell Westbrook. To advance further, they will have to get by the heavy favorite for this season’s Most Valuable Player award, James Harden, and the Houston Rockets’s 110 – 96 domination of Game 1 illustrated just how difficult that will be.

Oklahoma City was a super-team in name only. The Rockets have been a genuinely super-elite squad all season, which gave them a huge advantage going into Game 1 at home. Truly elite teams are impossible to prepare for because opponents simply can’t replicate the things that make them unique. The opponent really has to witness what makes the team great in person and then prepare.

Well Utah got a good look at what they have on their hands.

Harden and his newly claimed wing man Chris Paul, without question the most dominant guard combo in the NBA this season, were everything Houston has come to expect. They combined for 58 points and 13 assists on 40 shots, including a scorching 10 of 18 (56 percent) from downtown while Harden made 10 of 11 attempts from the free throw line. With the Beard rocking his patented step-back with uncanny accuracy1 and Paul making contested jumpers everywhere, Utah saw firsthand how different this duo is from the Westbrook-Paul George tandem they dispatched in Round 1.

Moreover, Houston doesn’t have the top-heavy vulnerability that Utah took advantage of in the previous round. Clint Capela lives off of Harden’s and Paul’s awesome ability to create with the ball in their hands, and today he dominated the match up with Rudy Gobert, with 10 points and eight rebounds by halftime. Meanwhile, Gobert didn’t even attempt a first-half shot. His fellow starters PJ Tucker and Trevor Ariza contributed four made threes on five first-half attempts. Added all together and Houston took a giant 64 – 39 lead into the locker room at half.

Without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who estimates say may be unavailable for 10 days, the Jazz clearly had a bevy of problems to solve. As Jazz head coach Quin Snyder stressed in a time out, his team would have to “figure it out on the floor.”

In the second half they just may have done that, or at least started.  While the Rockets’s 27-point lead and resulting lethargy clearly eased competitive conditions, the Jazz played far better both offensively and defensively in the second half. They scored well in the third (29 points) and fourth (28) quarters while holding Houston beneath 25 points (22 and 24 respectively) in each period as well. 

While Utah’s resurgence late in this game added some cosmetic value, and perhaps a little confidence heading into Game 2, the outcome of this contest was never in question. Houston won Game 1 easily, which was predictable. Now the Jazz have experienced the challenge they face. Now they have a chance to really prepare for this team that few, if any, think they can beat.

Stars of the Game

Superstar: Jae Crowder (21 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 5 threes)

After shooting only 29 percent from deep in the first round, Crowder scorched the nets in Game 1 against Houston, making five of seven attempts from long range. He also put his head down and repeatedly attacked the rim while providing his typical tough, physical presence on the defensive end of the floor. Unsurprisingly, Crowder played 33 minutes against the four-out Rockets’s offense, and so it is vitally important that he continue to play well if the Jazz are to have a real shot at making the series competitive.

Secondary Star: Donovan Mitchell (21 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 three)

Like the rest of his teammates, Mitchell was simply overwhelmed by a Rockets’s team playing its best ball in the first half. But following up his monstrous 22-point third quarter in Game 6 against the Thunder, Mitchell engaged his second-half gear and ran off a 10-point third period today as the Jazz steadied the ship. While Mitchell got to the rim repeatedly and finished well while there (eight of 15 within the arc), he made only one of his seven three-point shots. It’s hard to ask a rookie for better than this game against perhaps the league’s best team, but he’s going to need to make more of his long-range attempts if he wants to give the Jazz a real shot at winning ball games. Such is reality against a title favorite.

Secret Star: Raul Neto (4 points, 1 rebound, +8)

While Neto played only eight minutes in the game, it was in that stretch that the Jazz looked their best all night. Neto played with poise and helped generate an offensive pace (especially after defensive stops) that helped the Jazz climb back to within 11 in the fourth quarter. He also didn’t turn the ball over, which was a problem for Utah’s guards. With Rubio possibly out for the series, Neto will be called upon to fill minutes and may well see those opportunities to play expand if he can provide stability with the ball in his hands.

Stats of the Game

32 – Field goals made or assisted by Harden and Paul, out of 37 total field goals by Houston.

12 – Second chance points by the Rockets, four more than the Jazz managed. If Utah loses this, they’re dead.

53 percent – Houston’s three point shooting. In the regular season they shot 36 percent, actually about half a percentage point worse than the Jazz.

8:34 – Time left in the fourth quarter when Gobert took his first shot of the game.

13 – Rockets’s bench points, which they will likely improve upon in every other game this series.

Sundries

  • Houston is awesome. Really. To win games against this team, Utah has to do numerous things well, and they have to do them all in combination.
  • First, Utah’s defense has to attack. Against most opponents, the Jazz defense is so stingy that Jazz players are discouraged from taking risks. The point is to restrict shots to those the defense wants to allow, such as long twos or contested jumpers out of isolation. They can’t do that against Houston. The Rockets simply create too much space and are too well-practiced and determined to get shots either at the rim or beyond the arc. Harden and Paul simply maintain their dribble off picks and press their advantage as they advance on the rim until they get either an easy oop to Capela or a gimmie shot themselves. In this series, the Jazz need to take risks, charging hard into passing lanes. Giving Harden and Paul time to make decisions without pressure is lethal in the space Houston’s offense creates.
  • Next, the Jazz have to stay confident when Harden and Paul hit the shots the defense is designed to give them. Harden is famous for his long step-back shots, as Paul is for his fading away mid-range game. Yet those shots are far more desirable for the Jazz than the open corner threes or Capela dunks so often created by these two out of the pick and roll or in isolation. There will be times, like often today, when the Jazz get Houston to take the shot they want and get punished with points. That’ll happen more than once. Utah cannot let that depress their energy or compromise their defensive scheme.
  • Finally, the Jazz defense simply cannot give up offensive rebounds. Several times today the Rockets missed a shot that descended in the midst of two or three Jazz players yet a single Houston player ended up with the ball. It was like Jazz players were taken by surprise when the Rockets missed shots. That can’t happen.
  • Offensively, the standard motion offense of the regular season won’t cut it. The Rockets’s defense switches all five players on any screen and have a bevy of physically strong defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker, Paul, and Capela, which doesn’t permit the same match up advantages Snyder often orchestrates. Even attacking Harden is unlikely to be productive enough to win games given a quality help defender often resides at each of the other four positions. The Jazz offense will have to diversify in two specific ways.
  • First, especially in the absence of Rubio, Jazz guards will have to put constant pressure on the rim with their speed. Houston’s defense is excellent, fully deserving of their sixth-place rank in defensive efficiency in the regular season. But they aren’t particularly quick or fast outside of Paul. They have a lot of strong players who defend from within the jersey, making it hard for offensive players to move. Mitchell, Dante Exum, and Alec Burks all showed the ability to get to the rim this game. They’re going to have to keep doing that, and they’re going to have to score doing so, to create many of the three-point opportunities normally generated by Utah’s offense.
  • Also, when Houston switches small players onto Gobert or Derrick Favors those players must seal the defender beneath the rim and receive the basketball, every time. In Game 1 Utah’s two bigs combined for only nine shot attempts, despite frequently being guarded by much smaller players. Houston is taking away everything from these two rolling to the hoop. But they’re also trusting that Utah can’t punish them for leaving Paul or Harden or Ariza switched onto Utah’s bigs in single coverage. The Jazz have to be looking for these entry passes constantly, and Gobert and Favors have to seal switched defenders right under the hoop and then not allow the ball to be stripped from them on the catch. Using size to punish smalls is one of the only ways to really hurt a four-out team with a stretch four and switchy defense like the Rockets or Warriors. Utah was horrible at that today. 

Even the Jazz must have expected Game 1 to proceed much as it did. But now they’ve seen the monster, been on the court with it, touched it, even smelled its sweat. They’ve also experienced a few things that helped them make the game more competitive. Now the time to prepare has really come, and the Jazz will see if they have a better game to offer up Wednesday night.  

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.

5 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Nice Clint. Remember the Jazz had 18 turnovers and missed 9 freethrows. I also think they can continue to push the ball with out the long pass turnovers. I would make Harden and Paul drive instead of dribbling into 3s or step back threes. Gordon and Houston starters had to play all over 32 min and besides Luc’s 21 min no one else played 10 min. Force Harden and Paul to work hard on offense.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      They’re really tough to stop. The problem on the drive is Capela. Gobert is great at guarding two men in the paint, but the Rockets excel at forcing a rim protector to commit one way or the other, and both Harden and Paul can finish at the hoop and are elite passers. It’s a real challenge.

      • John Jenkins says:

        Beats the heck out of Harden’ step back(walking) three and Paul’s dribble three. It allows the other 4 to take a bit of a break. Plus they have to earn it.

  2. Spencer says:

    If Paul and Harden are working on defense, or in foul trouble due to having to bang with the bigs, that will effect their accuracy. We have two or three guys that can switch as primary defenders on both of these guys. We if we can make them work enough to shoot in the 31-35% range from three, and figure out how to rebound the layup-three point combination we will be in the games.

    In reality, Houston did not shoot better than Minnesota last series, and Utah is a far superior defense. What Houston did was shoot more 3’s and free throws. Guarding Harden and Paul without fouling is nearly impossible because they draw three or four phantom/touch/bait fouls every game each.

    My focus:
    1- Get the ball to Favors at the rim and trust his ability to finish/fine open guys. Just like you said
    2- Guards rebound and bigs re-create habits for rebounding three-point shots. I think Houston rebounds well because they know where the long rebounds are going, having played this way all season. (Guard rebounding and deep entry passes are where we miss Rubio the most right now)
    3-Figure out how to not foul the two stars. If we can cut their combined free-throw attempts by 6-8 per game, we are in business.
    4- Make those guys work. Make the two stars tired.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      That point about free throws is huge but really hard. Because of the skill of Harden and Paul, as well as how readily referees blow whistles for them (especially Harden), it means not making plays with the hands on relatively good shots, such as the five footers Harden missed. But that’s the right play: protect against the foul on a shot that will probably go in 50% of the time. That 1 point per shot bet is far better than the point and a half or more that comes from giving up two free throws.

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