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