Game 4: Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz on 4/22/19

To say the Rockets game on Sunday night was a strange one would almost be a bit of an understatement. James Harden had one of the worst shooting performances in playoff history, many of the Jazz players significantly stepped up their play on both ends of their floor from their previous two outings…and yet the Rockets still somehow won by 3. If anything, the Rockets winning a game where their star player plays so terribly is a positive telling sign for the rest of the postseason than it is a negative one. If the Rockets are able to win a road playoff game on a night when their MVP has one of the worst games of the season, then heaven knows how good they’ll look when he’s clicking on nights when the rest of the Rockets squad are on, as well. While it’s easy to shift focus ahead to the impending series rematch with Golden State in the next round, in order to be fully rested, mentally prepared, and playing the best basketball they can play going into that series, the Rockets really need to finish things out on a high note tonight at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have been and will continue to be the keys to the Jazz’s success for what’s left of their season. When Donovan Mitchell has the mindset and will to put in work in all of the offensive and defensive facets of a a game (à la peak Kobe Bryant), rather than simply having an “I’m just tryna get buckets” (a la peak Carmelo) mindset, the Jazz are usually much more successful. While the Jazz still lost Game 3, Mitchell’s stat line is indicative of this all-inclusive style of play (34 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST, & 3 STL) that brought the Jazz a lot closer to winning than his play did in the previous 2 games (Game 1: 19/5/0/1 & Game 2: 11/1/6/2). The more he integrates his teammates into the offense rather than just trying to get his, the better the offense runs. Gobert, on the other hand, is the one Jazz force that solely needs to focuses on just being the best Rudy Gobert that he can be, and not much else. In Games 1 & 2, Gobert looked far from the DPOY candidate that he has been all season, in that, he hardly had any blocks either game (1 in Game 1 & 0 in Game 2) and had an atrocious defensive rating of 131.4 in Game 1 and 130.3 in Game 2. As their main defensive anchor that usually keeps the paint free from opponent guard and post invaders, it makes sense that the Jazz paint looked as porous as can be for the majority of both contests. Gobert just couldn’t seem to figure out the the actions of Houston’s guards (whether it be Harden, Paul, Gordon, Rivers, etc.) in time enough to make a difference. However, in Game 3, Gobert’s defensive rating improved dramatically to 91.4, and he is a huge reason the Jazz kept the score a lot closer that game than in the previous two.

As the Jazz finally had some success with their “shut down Harden” game plan in Game 3, they will likely continue to employ their strategy of cutting off Harden from going to his dominant left and all but inviting him to attack the heart of the defense to his lesser right hand. While the thinking behind this strategy is great in theory – eliminate Harden’s deadly left hand 3 point step back shot and force him to make a tough shot/play in the heart of their well protected defense – for the most part, it has not been the most fruitful. Harden’s career off night in shooting can largely be attributed to Gobert’s heightened defensive performance the last time out, but more so, can and should be attributed to Harden’s uncharacteristic offensive timidity on Sunday. Whether it was the menacing atmosphere of the Jazz home crowd, a slight fearfulness of the improved Jazz interior defense, or simply an effect of mental/physical fatigue, Harden’s struggles seemed to be self-inflicted in Game 3. While timidity isn’t exactly quantifiable, Harden looked much more indecisive than usual when driving to the basket on Sunday night, and that didn’t really change until late in the 4th quarter. Regardless of the countless variables surrounding him, James must continue to attack the basket with conviction and determination when the Jazz invite him to do so, the way he has done all throughout the season. In doing so, he will not only create better opportunities for himself, but better ones for his teammates (which he actually did a good job of last game), as well. Pair this return of Harden’s killer mindset with a continued focus on full-team-all-out defense for 48 minutes, a balanced scoring load, and an emphasis (as always) on team rebounding, the Rockets should be able to close the series out on the road and get one step closer to the coveted Larry O’ Brien trophy.

Prediction: Rockets 110-Jazz 105

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Houston Rockets 104, Utah Jazz 101: Let us never speak of this again

If I felt like putting a positive spin on tonight’s victory for the Houston Rockets, I could say that it showed this team’s ability to win ugly. How James Harden came through in the clutch at the end, and how this team won through defense, and rebounding, and teamwork. And this is pretty much what Mike D’Antoni said in his postgame press conference.

But that would not be the honest truth. The honest truth is that this game was a ridiculous, miserable slog from just about everyone. Harden was bad, Capela was bad, the offense was bad, the Jazz were bad, and the referees were really bad. Utah had opportunities to blow this game wide open, and Donovan Mitchell had a wide-open three in the final seconds to send this game to overtime thanks to a defensive miscommunication between P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela. As Harden and Chris Paul both had five fouls at that point, it is reasonable to presume that the Jazz would have won the overtime period.

Instead, Mitchell missed, and the Rockets did not win so much as they escaped. What was the cause of this offensive and defensive debacle?

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Rockets 122, Jazz 90: First Team to 100 Wins

Word to Gene Peterson. This was a truly complete effort from the Rockets. They held Utah to 90 points. They had seven players in double figures (and Gerald Green with 9 PTS as well). They played stiff individual defense, with Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, PJ Tucker, Chris Paul, Danuel House, and even James Harden getting in on the defensive intensity. They played smart team defense. I saw only two miscommunications on defensive rotations during the whole game (unofficially a record for the Rockets who until recently have averaged shade more than a whole hell of a lot). They hit three pointers. They scored in the paint and even won the rebounding battle. They kept our minutes load in reasonable territory across the board. Perhaps the most eye popping takeaway is this: there is still room for improvement. How sweet it is.

As has been the case in the second half of this season, one of the more interesting things to pay attention to during our games is how the opposing team decides to guard Harden. The Jazz adopted the Milwaukee plan, staying beside if not behind Harden’s left shoulder and leaving him an uncontested lane to his right.

I cannot really emphasize enough how weird this is. This is the NBA. These teams and the athletes that play on them are the best in the world. Never before has an offensive weapon been so feared as to cause another team to offer a player a layup as the lesser of two evils. In the history of the game, a contested three point shot was always a worse shot than the shot that would come from driving into the paint. No more. Between his height (6 foot 5 inches) and his surgical footwork, Harden has teams so unable to contest the step-back that they are grasping for straws at how to defend him. They are defending him from behind (FROM BEHIND)! When I teach my daughter to play defense in a couple of years, the first thing I will tell her will be to have her butt point at the rim and her chest point at the chest of the player she is guarding. Because that is how you play defense. Or it was. Until Harden became a glitch in this system.

So in the minds of the Jazz, they are hoping to take away the step back by playing this odd brand of defense, which leads James to attack the lane, where he is a capital-P Problem. Rudy Gobert can either leave Capela to try to stop the penetration–allowing for the over the top lob, or he can stay back and let Harden take a floater. Harden’s floater wasn’t falling today, but if it does in the future (or even if Gobert just gets caught in the wrong spot) Gobert will likely help off of Capela while another Jazz player (Favors in their starting lineup) helps Gobert by rotating in from the corner to put a body on Capela. This leaves PJ Tucker open in the corner. If the Rockets’ shooters hit shots, they are going to put up impressive numbers on the scoreboard.

But honestly, what are the Jazz to do? Do you make Harden beat you by staying home and playing him straight? He has demonstrated (32 times in a row at one point) that he can obtain copious buckets. Do you double him consistently and let future hall of famer and Point God Chris Paul go to work 4 on 3? Even Danuel House was pump faking and attacking close outs from the perimeter this evening. For these Jazz, there are no good answers. If the Rockets play defense like they did this evening, no scheme has a chance–not one that lets Harden cook, not one that makes the role players beat you, not one that invokes an Infinity Stone. It just ain’t happening.

The Eye Test

Tonight, we have a few observations from the eye test.

  1. Gerald Green did not play well tonight. He scored 9 points on 3 of 6 shooting and ended up a team-low plus 6 in a thirty-two point blowout. It was interesting to see him in the game over Shumpert, whose playoff pedigree is considerable. Shumpert did see the floor eventually, in garbage time. If he’s healthy, he may make a difference in a series with the Warriors. Outside of PJ, the Rockets don’t have enough capable defenders with the size needed to bother Kevin Durant.
  2. This was not a coming out party for Danuel House, but he played well. He shot the three well and was frisky against closeouts. There was no sign of playoff jitters from this guy–he’s a gamer. I predict that as defenses put more and more pressure on the Rockets’ role players to perform, House will have a game that truly puts his name on the map in these playoffs (which would be great to see, but might cost the Rockets when they get to negotiating his contract for next year).
  3. Austin. Rivers. Plays. Defense. Seriously, y’all. Donovan Mitchell had 19 points on 18 shots and put up a whole cassowary egg in assists. And like the fearsome cassowary, Mitchell, too, seemed flightless in the face of the clamps laid upon him by one Austin James Rivers.
  4. Grayson Allen got some playtime. I sincerely hope he has reformed since the thug manifesto that was his four year career at Duke. Health is the Rockets’ number one concern going forward, and Grayson Allen should have been a hockey player or an MMA fighter. Or I dunno an assassin. Just keep him away from Chris Paul’s hamstrings.

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