Jazz-Rox: What Worked in Game 2, What’s Sustainable for Game 3?

May 3rd, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Crowder went off in G2, while Exum transformed the game with defense (Bill Baptist via utahjazz.com)

After surprising the Rockets in Houston on Wednesday, the Utah Jazz are heading back to their gym with their conference semifinal series tied 1-1. The Jazz found some things that worked in their Game 2 win, but the top-seeded Rockets won’t show up on Friday without some answers. The Jazz haven’t held a lead in a second-round series since 2007 — something they can accomplish in Game 3 if they’re able to sustain some of their advantages from Wednesday evening.

Quin Snyder has to figure out what was real about his team’s 8-point win and what was a mirage. So we’ll try to sort it out, too.

Defense: Guards Fighting

Utah’s defense didn’t work in Game 1. Houston managed to score at a per-100 rate of 110.5, mostly a product of their 30-point advantage (!!!) from downtown. James Harden and Chris Paul surgically dismantled Utah’s pick-and-roll defense, rendering the Jazz’s defensive scheme moot and throwing helpers into frantic rotations.

Some of the scrutiny fell to Rudy Gobert’s shoulders, although — as I contended in a radio appearance with Coach Nick — some of that isn’t a fair representation of what broke down for Utah. As the last line of defense, Gobert is often the guy left visibly holding the bag when the team defense gets compromised. When a botched coverage leads to a 2-on-1 with only Gobert back to guard, it’s going to end badly for the French center at times. But that hardly means that all of Sunday’s breakdowns were on the big guy.

In fact, a lot of what went wrong from Utah’s standpoint in Game 1 came down to perimeter defenders getting caught behind the ball handler. Nobody was immune, either: Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jae Crowder… they all had turns being relegated to Paul’s or Harden’s rear view mirror. This most commonly happened on screens, where a Jazz defender would get blown up by a solid pick and then make a token effort of getting back into the play. Utah’s whole defensive approach is based on the idea of guarding the pick-and-roll with two guys as often as possible. But that only works when the guard fights their way back in front of the ball. That can be easier said than done — especially with Clint Capela setting very effective screens — but it’s a key for Utah in this series.

It was even more damaging when Jazz perimeter guys would let Harden get by them without a screen even being necessary. The MVP-in-waiting is such a pull-up threat that guys are up on him at all times, and he’ll use that against them, zipping by them before a pick ever comes. Now there’s no P&R scheme to rely on, and Gobert has to make a tough decision: leave his man to stop the ball, or concede Harden a layup.

Paul in particular did a great job of taking the big away from the pick whenever he saw a guard getting stuck. This forced the bigs to take on some pretty uncomfortable switches. The Jazz will switch in certain situations, but ideally they don’t want Favors or (especially) Gobert guarding 25 feet from the rim. That’s not where he is at his best. That’s not where he’s elite.

More often, the big didn’t fully switch, but tried to stay in front of the ball long enough for the guards to recover. And that recovery didn’t always come. It’s just not enough to jog behind the ball in those situations. 

Contrast that with the effort from Wednesday. Every single Jazz defender made a point of forcing the way through screens, or at least scurrying back into the action. Exum in particular was phenomenal at this.

Exum wasn’t the only one. To a man, Jazz defenders made it a point not to let a single screen derail their whole defensive game plan.

Rudy can’t guard both Harden and Capela all the way to the rim, but he does have an elite ability to contain both guys for a beat while the other defender recovers. If that recovery comes quickly enough, Utah can guard the P&R without involving other defenders. The other three defenders can stay glued to shooters and, as in that last clip, that also means they’re in position to help rebound a miss. 

That’s what the Jazz can do better than virtually any team in the league: guard the pick-and-roll 2-on-2. It’s why Gobert is such a weapon, and why Utah gives up relatively few open corner threes by bringing in weakside help. But it only plays out that way if the guard sticks with the play.

On Wednesday they did, and it took away a lot of Houston’s easy buckets. Occasionally Harden and Paul still got to their shots, and Capela had an even bigger Game 2. But the Jazz are choosing to give up the occasional Capela pick-and-roll bucket if it means they can tenably control the play without setting shooters free. 

Houston still has ways to generate open looks from the outside, but Utah did a good job of making sure that they didn’t leave the wrong guys free. After attempting 15 uncontested shots on Sunday, Harden took all but five of his shots with a body on him in Game 2. And yes, Houston was cold — they made just 33 percent of their open (3-for-9) and wide open (6-for-18) threes — but part of that was that Utah made sure the right dudes were taking the open ones.

Exum deserves a lot of credit for his defensive contributions. You’ve no doubt seen the stat that Harden only scored two points during the 22 possessions that Exum was his primary defender. The Australian guard is back to impacting games with his length and tenacity at the point of attack. In addition to fighting through screens as mentioned above, Exum also took care to make sure Harden couldn’t beat him in isolation.

So how much of that defensive performance is sustainable?

Well, the MVP won’t keep scoring just a bucket per 22 possessions with Exum on him, that’s for sure. Expect to see Harden get more aggressive at seeking out calls, as well as some more screens both off and on the ball to try and goad the youngster into mistakes. Houston might even try running some double screens; Mike D’Antoni prefers to have the floor spread around a single high pick, but there was one stagger hand-off action that keeps giving the Jazz some fits. Rest assured, they’ll find some ways to get Harden scoring even when Exum’s on him.

But on a broader level, the Jazz spent Game 2 reminding themselves that their philosophy works when it’s executed. Expect to see more of that fight from the guards.

Offense: Attacking Early

A lot has been made about Utah’s decision to counter Houston’s switching defense by having the bigs slip some pick-and-rolls, or even fake them altogether. They’d approach as if they were going to set the high screen, and as soon as a Rocket jumped out on the high side to switch, the big was diving into an empty paint. 

Doing that either leads to a fairly open look for the Jazz bigs, or Houston brings help but then winds up in “oh crap” mode. That has a lot to do with how Joe Ingles kept finding himself open on a playoff career-high 27-point performance.

Here’s another, subtler thing Utah adjusted: they kept the roll man just out of Paul’s reach.

By changing the route on some of Gobert’s and Derrick Favors’ rim dives, Utah neutralized Paul’s tendency to read to the short roll pass and meet the big in the middle of the lane for the steal. He had four takeaways in Game 1, plus a number of plays where he spurred a bad decision by catching the big off guard on the catch.

So instead, the Jazz had Rudy and Derrick roll a little wider. Paul is often the weak corner defender on those plays, which means he doesn’t want to help farther that the middle of the paint. Utah would have the bigs roll down the strong-side edge of the lane.

Here you can see Rudy rolling down the left edge of the lane on a left-side pick-and-roll, and then the right edge on a righty P&R. Both times, you can almost sense how bad Paul wants to go for it, but he just can’t rotate that far. So instead, he watches with chagrined impotence as Gobert dunks it both times.

Getting Gobert going was a big deal. In Game 1, he attempted just four shots, and two of those were putbacks. He didn’t attempt a shot out of the offensive flow until the final four minutes of the game, when the Jazz were already down 18. 

As for this development being sustainable, Houston has some options. They can either thwart the strategy of slipping picks by giving up their switch-everything defense, or they can adjust their help behind the play. They might try the latter, and see if guys like O’Neale, Exum and Crowder can consistently beat them from outside if they rotate off to deny the cutting big. Of course, that throws the Houston defense into a frantic over-helping mode out of which Utah can make the right reads, but my guess is they’ll try some of that.

They can also try a more conservative switch, where the big man just takes the ball handler without jumping out high. Gobert and Favors can still seal the other defender is they roll right, but at least this way they wouldn’t be rolling into a big empty nothingness. But I expect them to play the odds, and instead help off of some of Utah’s unproven shooters.

But that’s not the only way Utah focused on attacking early.

Utah’s Bench

Utah is also getting an usual burst of scoring from its second unit. Crowder is now 8-of-13 from three in the conference semis, and Alec Burks just had his undisputed best playoff game ever. How real are those trends?

The mercurial Burks scored as many field goals on Wednesday as he did in the Jazz’s final 14 regular season games. In other words, it was an outlier performance. 

On the other hand, four of his seven buckets were layups he scored in the first 4-6 seconds of the shot clock. If he can keep some pressure on the defense after Houston misses, that could yield positive outcomes for the Jazz. In all, Houston will be more conscious of AB in Game 3, and Utah might not be able to bank on a 17-point outburst, but they can hope for more smart reads in the half court. Burks had six assists as an auxiliary attacker in the halfcourt, setting up five triples and a Gobert alley-oop. That’s 17 points he was responsible for, in addition to his own 17. 

Crowder will regress to his mean at some point, too. But in part, his higher percentage is a result of taking smarter shots. Ten of his attempted threes have been the catch-and-shoot variety, and he’s only taken one after more than a single dribble. Twelve of his 13 threes this series have been open or wide open.

All told, Utah can expect a battle on Friday evening. Houston will find answers to many of the things that gave Utah the Game 2 momentum, and it will be the Jazz’s task to quickly figure out where to look. Utah will need to be ready to find something else that works when a team led by the next MVP inevitably finds a way to push through the pressure. If they don’t, they’ll hand back the homecourt advantage they just stole; if they do, they’ll be up 2-1, their first advantage in a second-round series in more than a decade.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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