Through the first 3 games of this 1st round playoff matchup, the Rockets had seemed to have had the Jazz’s number. Utah, despite possessing the NBA’s second-best defensive rating during the regular season, adopted the Milwaukee Bucks’s method of guarding James Harden. This scheme of “shading Harden’s left”, thereby funneling him into the paint and removing his lethal step-back three while having him meet Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert at the rim, is a more grotesque version of the defense the San Antonio Spurs employed in the 2017 NBA playoffs against the Rockets. The scheme in that series largely worked, tiring out the All-Star shooting guard as he struggled mightily to connect on his drives, resulting in his infamous Game 6 implosion.
Harden has since learned much from the events that transpired during that playoff series. He has added more tools to his game, most notably the stepback three-pointer and floater, for which he has connected on 50% this season. Harden, having to shoulder an incredible burden in running Houston’s offense, must always adapt his game to stay ahead of the NBA’s top defenses; arguably no other player in the NBA is more obsessively schemed against than the Beard.
The Jazz’s defensive scheme was largely ineffective in stopping Houston’s elite offense in the first 2 games, as Houston convincingly won those matches by an average margin of 26 points. In Game 3, the Jazz’s defense was markedly improved, as the team’s well-respected head coach Quin Snyder made several necessary adjustments. It also helped that the Jazz were playing in the friendly confines of Vivint Smart Home Arena, famously known as one of the loudest arenas in all of professional sports and fueled by an extremely passionate fanbase. The Jazz’s defensive scheme on Harden reached its full potential that game, resulting in the Beard missing his first 15 shots. And yet, in contrast to prior years, Harden found himself pushing through, resulting in a huge, clutch 4th quarter where he made some critical three-pointers and defensive plays, alongside PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon, to seal a 104-101 victory and go up 3-0 against the Jazz.
With Game 4, the Rockets had a chance to sweep a playoff series for the first time since 1995, when Olajuwon, Drexler, and Co. dispatched the Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway-led Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, human nature plays a huge role in the NBA playoffs, and the Jazz, looking to avoid the embarrassment of a sweep at the hands of their Western Conference foe, simply wanted the game more than the Rockets.
In the 1st quarter, the Jazz got off to a fast start, as Crowder would score most of the Jazz’s points, ending the quarter with 14. With Donovan Mitchell largely unable to contribute significantly through the first three quarters, it was Crowder’s play, along with Ricky Rubio, who would end with 11 points in the first quarter, that was critical in sustaining the Jazz’s lead against the Rockets through much of the night. In fact, the two players would be responsible for 62% of the Jazz’s total points in the first half. The Rockets, meanwhile, were a sieve on defense, allowing the Jazz to score 52 points in the paint, as one of the team’s worst weaknesses all season had reared its ugly head. In contrast, the Rockets would only end up with 22 such points, compared to 62, 58 and 52 in Games 1, 2 and 3, respectively. The Jazz’s paint defense was absolutely brutal on the Rockets.
Beyond points in the paint, the second critical discrepancy between the two teams was rebounding, easily the Rocket’s worst weakness throughout the regular season. In the first three games, the Rockets outrebounded the Jazz or were at least at parity:
- Game 1: 51 Rockets, 48 Jazz
- Game 2: 54 Rockets, 58 Jazz
- Game 3: 65 Rockets, 57 Jazz
In Game 4, the Rockets were out-rebounded 62 to 48 overall and 16 to 9 on the offensive glass. Few teams can surmount such a discrepancy, and credit the Jazz for such an effort on the boards, as it came from up and down the roster, particularly Derrick Favors (11), Royce O’Neale (11) and Rudy Gobert (9).
Much of the discrepancies above were due to Clint Capela’s performance, who perhaps had one of the worst games of his career. It was earlier noted by the team that Capela was battling an upper respiratory infection, which was then further clarified after the game:
It seemed clear, with hindsight, that this infection had gotten the best of Capela, as he was more than a few steps slow throughout the night both on defense and offense. Without Capela’s vertical spacing, the Rocket’s elite offense becomes more primitive, as the team was forced to rely on the three-ball. Somehow, the team was able to connect on 52% of such threes through three quarters, largely masking the team’s issues. On the defensive end, Capela couldn’t exhibit the lateral quickness that has allowed him to defend quick guards on the perimeter, and, as a result, the Jazz were extremely effective in the paint. Capela also was a non-contributor on the boards, only racking up 7 rebounds – even Chris Paul had more with 8! Here’s hoping Clint gets well very, very soon.
Despite all of this, the Rockets miraculously were up by 3 heading into the 4th quarter. The game and sweep were very much in reach, but then Mitchell turned it on, resulting in 19 points in the quarter from the sophomore phenom. The Jazz soon had jumped out to an 11-point lead within 3 minutes and never looked back. The Rockets, unable to penetrate the paint all night, reverted to their passive ways, settling for three-pointers vs. higher percentage shots that a team should prefer in the closing minutes of a game. While the Rockets were lights out from three-point land during the first three quarters, they would subsequently go 1-14, once again reminding us of the high variance that comes with the three-pointer’s high reward. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni trotted out the infamous “Tuckwagon” lineup (where PJ Tucker plays center and there are five 3pt shooters on the court), normally reserved for teams like Golden State, for the first time this series, in order to try to neutralize the Jazz’s towering defenders, but the team did not do a good enough job at gang-rebounding, erasing any edge the lineup may have had. The team would end up packing it in towards the closing minutes, but not before Chris Paul showed us his ups.
Game 5 is on Wednesday night. With the Warriors looking to close out their series on Wednesday as well against the Clippers, the Rockets need to take care of business and make the necessary adjustments to get the final win in this series. Otherwise, we may be facing a longer series than we thought.