Western Conference Semifinals Preview: Keys to Competing With the Rockets

April 29th, 2018 | by Riley Gisseman

Mitchell and the Jazz get ready to face the Rockets after going 0-4 against Houston in the regular season (Melissa Majchrzak via rockets.com)

The Houston Rockets came into the 2018 postseason confident and ready to build off of their best regular season in franchise history and the top record in the league. Led by Chris Paul and James Harden, Houston logged the 10th best offensive rating in NBA history, topping their last year’s mark of 111.8, and their defense improved from 106.4 to 103.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. So, after a historic season, is it possible for Utah to knock off Houston like in the late 90’s and mid 00’s? If possible, how will it happen? What is Houston’s kryptonite?

Ricky Rubio

One of the keys to the Jazz’s playoff run went down with a hamstring injury in Utah’s decisive Game 6  against OKC. Ricky Rubio is out for Sunday’s opener vs Houston, and could be out as long as 10 days according to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.  Where does this leave Utah in hopes to beating Houston?

In the first five games of the Jazz’s first-round series win against the Thunder, Rubio averaged 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists on 36/32/78 shooting splits. A key cog in the machine, he was a net +9.3 points per 100 possessions in 181 minutes, only behind Joe Ingles (+47.9) and Derrick Favors (+34.2).

The Jazz still survived Oklahoma City without Rubio, building a 13 point lead with seven minutes to go, but is this something they can replicate without Rubio? If so, the Jazz will need Alec Burks to step up as he did in the series clincher against the Thunder, as well as healthy contributions from Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum. The top four-man lineups in game six all had at least two of Favors, Ingles, and Rudy Gobert, but Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, and Burks each showed up at least once as well, showing how they were able to impact the game the game. All three stepped up in Rubio’s absence. 

Moreyball

2017-18 Regular season FGA for the Houston Rockets (left) compared to the OKC Thunder (right)

Houston has become infamous since Daryl Morey took over as the general manager in 2007 for something called “MoreyBall”. Morey, a believer in the analytics movement, has constructed his team through a rigorous statistical process similar to the 2002 Oakland Athletics by hypothesizing that in order to construct a league-leading offense, a team would have to attempt more layups, 3-pointers, and free throws then anyone else, all but completely eliminating the midrange. At first it seemed a little extreme, but 10 years later, Houston has produced one of the best offenses ever. MoreyBall seems to be working.

This will be a contrast from the style Utah faced in Round 1. While the Thunder are above league-average shooters from many parts of the floor, they spend a lot of possessions shooting from low-efficiency areas. Houston has built an elite offense not by shooting lights-out from any particular area, but by ensuring that they’re not depending on non-paint twos.

The Jazz will counter this efficient offense with their own league-leading defense, designed to pressure three-point shooters and leverage Gobert’s presence to deny the interior, leaving mostly mid-range shots. We’ll be watching a true chess match as Utah tries to get Houston to take mid-range shots, while Houston tries to find open looks under the hoop, from the three point line, and drawing fouls. Will Houston break or bend against this Jazz defense?

Donovan Mitchell

Simply said, Mitchell has turned heads. He outperformed the reigning MVP in a seven-game series, and carried Utah to the win with a dazzling 22 point third quarter in Game 6. Can he continue this incredible performance? Something that amazes me game after game with Mitchell is his ability to play unselfishly even when he’s the man. Here he unselfishly finds an open Burks in the corner after Westbrook gets lost ball watching. Mitchell had scored nine straight field goals without a miss at this point and all attention was on him. This type of ball-watching is something Harden has a reputation for, and the Jazz will likely exploit a time or two.

Derrick Favors

Favors was arguably the biggest surprise impact for the Jazz in the first round. Despite going 1-for-7 from the free throw line in Game 6, he had the highest plus-minus on the team. He’s stepped up in a big way in the postseason on both offense and defense two years in a row, yet we can’t be sure that this will continue against Houston. He struggled mightily against Ryan Anderson, a nontraditional big man who can shoot and keep the ball moving, in the regular season.

In fact, the Jazz’s highest On-Off NetRtg in the regular season goes to Jonas Jerebko (+25.9), a role player that the Jazz absolutely need to step up in this conference semifinal series. Jerebko only averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds in the regular season, but made 41% of his threes and 46% of all field goal attempts. Those numbers dropped to 2 points and 2 rebounds in the series against the Thunder alongside 35.7% shooting and missing all 4 threes he took. But if left open, Jerebko could serve as a big momentum swinger when he finds minutes.

Game One on Sunday

Details on the uniforms teams will wear throughout the series haven’t been released yes, but thanks to lockervision we know that the Jazz will be wearing gold while the Rockets will be wearing black for Sunday’s Game 1. We can also reasonably expect a black-out in the Toyota Center which would make one of the best looking crowds yet — as long as the Houston fans wear their shirts.

Beyond the aesthetic display, Game One will set the early tone for the series, as Houston will try to impose its will on offense while Utah tries to limit them to non-MoreyBall shots.

In other words, they’ll be looking for that kryptonite.

Riley Gisseman

Riley is a fixture in the Jazz social media community, a frequent creator of spicy memes, thoughtful Reddit posts and awesome videos. He got his start writing about the Jazz at 12 years old, when he contributed to the franchise's own UtahJazz360 platform.

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