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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.