Jazz Start Hot, But Rockets Ignite to a 96-85 Win

February 26th, 2018 | by Steve Godfrey

James Harden and Joe Ingles discuss dinner plans (Game still, AT&T SportsNet)

In the month of February, both Houston and Utah were the hot tickets in the NBA. The Rockets continued that trend on Monday night as they overcame a slow start and picked up the 96-85 win in Salt Lake City. 

The first three matchups between these two Western Conference foes weren’t much of a slug fest as Houston won all three: 120-99, 112-101, and 137-110. However, the Jazz are a new team now, healthy and on a roll since late January, and anxious to see if they could compete in this fourth matchup with the Rockets.

Since Rudy Gobert’s return on January 19th, the Jazz  went 13-3, with the No. 1 Defensive Rating in that month. Houston, on the other hand?  A 16-1 record, 5th Defensive Rating, and 1st Offensive Rating. While the Jazz rank fourth in 3 point attempts and opponent attempts, Houston is first. If we look at the teams since January 24, Houston has the best Offensive Rating with 117.3 but Utah has the best Defensive Rating at 97.3.

Knowing something had to give, the Jazz gave it all they had in the first half, Houston adjusted and willed away their 13th straight victory. Here’s how it shook out, with some stats, play-by-play, and anecdotes along the way. 

1st Q: Royce O’Neale Makes His Mark

Royce O’Neale, the ‘other’ Jazz rookie who went from the Western Athletic Conference to undrafted to international to last man added to the team, was the first quarter MVP. As soon as he entered the game, the style, flow, pace, and momentum turned to the Jazz’s tune. In two minutes, the Jazz had a 10-0 run, with O’Neale’s hand all over it. He forced a steal on one end, ran the break, and then delivered a perfect alley-oop to Derrick Favors. On the ensuing inbound, he forced a Houston turnover. A few possessions later, he drove into the teeth of Houston’s defense, which led to a sweet pass to Gobert for another easy dunk. Next up, perfect man-to-man defense against James Harden which forced him into a deep airballed three with O’Neale’s hand in his face. Once more O’Neale directed the offense, pushing the pace and gave Jae Crowder a wide open three. O’Neale finished the quarter with a +7. 

By the end of the first quarter, Utah was up 21-19. Houston is second in the NBA in points per game, with 114.3 a night. On top of that, Houston is first in the NBA in first-quarter points, with 30, so the Jazz simply shut them down from the get-go. It started in the paint as Rudy did what Rudy does and made life difficult. Then, the perimeter players contested deep shots which contributed to Houston shooting 2/11 from deep. The trio of Jae Crowder, O’Neale, and Jonas Jerebko came in halfway through the quarter and played excellent individual defense. 

2nd Q: Alec Burks and Chris Paul’s Face

A flying Houdini-esque layup. A three. And then a slashing dunk for a personal AB 7-0 run to start the quarter. He even delivered a shoulder into Chris Paul’s jaw while fighting through a screen. It upset CP3 (not that it usually takes a lot), and resulted in a break to check the replay. The refs found nothing malicious, but the Jazz DJ did get a chance to play I Can’t Feel My Face When I’m With You as Paul continued to cry about getting hit in the face. 

It was this Burks sequence, especially the physicality with Paul, that set the gritty tone for the rest of the quarter. The tension escalated and Houston coaches and superstars were yelling at refs, elbows and chests were being bumped, and at one point announcer Craig Bolerjack delivered the gem that Harden and Ingles were going “toe to toe and beard to beard.” Houston flat out wasn’t enjoying Utah’s defense. 

The beautiful sequence of the second quarter happened with a pretty Joe Ingles inside scoop to Gobert for a dunk, a Houston offensive foul when PJ Tucker put a shoulder into O’Neale, and then star rookie Donovan Mitchell taking a quick cut in the shot clock, splitting two defenders and sprinting past James Harden for a thundering dunk. 

It seemed Utah had the mental edge, but that soon dissipated as Houston is used to winning ugly ways. While the Jazz failed to score in the last four minutes, they were forced to settle for just a 44-39 lead at the break. For Houston, it was the season low for first-half points and for assists in any half (four). The Jazz had a tough time connecting from deep, 5-for-16 at the break, but Houston had its own problems drilling threes, 2-for-16. 

 

3rd Q: The Threes Fall. For The Wrong Team. 

In the third, the Rockets went 4-of-9 from deep, but it was Trevor Ariza who led the way with three triples in the quarter. At one point, Crowder thought he got fouled by Harden on one end. While he lingered to tell the ref about it, the Rockets put the pedal down and went 5-on-4 for an Ariza triple. The next possession down the floor, the Rockets intentionally looked for the hot hand and gave Ariza another wide open three. Swish. It gave Houston’s first real lead of the game, 59-57. Ariza finished the game with only those nine points. 

With six minutes to go in the third quarter, Houston had already scored 20 points. Remember, they had 19 in the first, 20 in the second, but finished the third with 31. It didn’t help the Jazz were at 16 turnovers (compared to nine for Houston) which was already ahead of their 14/game average. Not surprisingly, as the Jazz got careless with the ball, the Rockets went on a run. The Jazz gave up four TOs in the quarter alone, the Rockets shot 48% from the field and were a +12 as a team. Specifically, they went 19-6 to end the quarter, giving them a 70-63 lead leading into the final frame. They had lift off and weren’t coming back down. 

4th Q: Rocket’s Orbit

From the 4:30 mark in the second quarter to the nine-minute mark of the fourth, the Rockets outscored Utah 46-21. Guess what: that’s not great. And that basically decided it. 

What happened? 

The Jazz stopped getting into the paint. When things were clicking, it was because the guards were penetrating the paint and getting the bigs easy looks. The Rockets are 30-1 when Paul, Harden, and center Clint Capela play together. Capela was out Monday night, which meant the Jazz would feast on Tarrick Black or Nene Hilario. At moments, the bigs did. Favors was 4/6 and Gobert 7/8 from the field, but both needed more touches in the paint to give the offense more balance and potency. For some reason, the Jazz were outscored in the paint 50-44. 

Plays like this should have been on repeat. 

Equally frustrating was Utah’s inability to punish Houston’s defensively vulnerable small-ball group. At times, the 6’5″ Tucker played center, and even Harden frequently got switched onto Gobert or Favors. When that happened, Favors did this (which allowed for internet jokes) but other times the switch came and the guards couldn’t get him the ball. They couldn’t get it done inside, which meant they couldn’t get the W. 

What’s Next? 

Mitchell should take home another Rookie of the Month honors as he led the Jazz to 12 wins in 14 games. The last game of the month wasn’t his best – 16 points and four assists but EIGHT turnovers and a -7 on the floor, but he will still make a compelling case for Rookie of the Year during the next two months. Unfortunately, Monday’s matchup also had Coach of the Month honors on the line as Mike D’Antoni will probably take the honors with his month-long sweep. 

FiveThirtyEight gives the Jazz a 56 percent chance of making the playoffs, predicting they finish with a 44-38 record. Hope and optimism are still on the menu and the Jazz will get a three-day break and then try for a new winning streak on Friday when the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves visit Salt Lake. 

Steve Godfrey

Steve studied journalism and English, and now teaches high school in Northern Utah. He started his own website and writes about being a Tortured Jazz fan at: http://www.thetorturedfan.com/. He joined the Salt City Hoops team at the start of the 2017-18 season to connect with more Jazz fans and to continue to apply his passion for writing and for basketball.

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