The Jazz had become a trendy upset pick but the Rockets made clear in Game 1 that they’ll have their work cut out for them.
The greatest downside of the first round of these NBA playoffs is that one of Houston or Utah – the two most dominant teams in the entire league since the All-Star break — will bow out before the festivities really heat up. Both the Jazz and Rockets mounted impressive second-half turnarounds this season as Houston rode James Harden to the fourth seed while Utah coalesced in time to secure the fifth. This series will be a fascinating study in contrasts. The two teams’ strengths stand in direct opposition to one another — defense for the Jazz, offense for the Rockets — and the clubs feature vastly different personnel. Either could make the Western Conference Finals, provided they can escape the most high-powered first-round series in the bracket.
If Sunday night was any indication, the Rockets figure to have a fairly significant upper hand. James Harden diced up Utah’s defense with an effortless 29 points and 10 assists while his supporting cast complemented him in backbreaking fashion. Meanwhile, every possession was a slog for Utah, who turned the ball over 18 times and managed under 0.9 points per possession for the game. Houston is a particularly bad matchup for the Jazz — particularly Rudy Gobert — and nearly all of Utah’s weaknesses came to the fore on Sunday night. Here’s what stood out in an easy Rockets win:
The Jazz tried to replicate Milwaukee’s defensive strategy on James Harden, but failed. Harden is as singular a scoring talent as the NBA has. He warps gameplans and defenses, constantly applying pressure to and drawing attention from all five defenders on the floor. His stepback 3 is an unguardable weapon, yet his driving ability is just as lethal. The rest of the NBA has spent the entire season searching for ways to account for him, and few have been particularly effective. Defensive success is relative against Harden, who has seen every scheme and gimmick in the book.
Perhaps the most effective approach any team has employed was the Bucks’ tactic of sitting on Harden’s left hip and forcing him right, in order to position themselves to defend the stepback 3 and usher him toward Brook Lopez as the rest of Milwaukee’s rangy personnel closed off passing lanes. The Jazz attempted to imitate that on Sunday night, but without the length and athleticism to properly execute the scheme, struggled to contain Harden’s drives. Rather than actively preventing Harden from going left, the Jazz merely ushered him right. The MVP candidate met little resistance as he waltzed passed his primary defender and into the lane, where he did virtually whatever he pleased. While Harden himself took 26 shots to score his 29 points and only shot three free throws, he repeatedly bent the Jazz out of shape. Utah’s help defenders were a touch too aggressive all game long, and Harden took advantage. Most often, he drew help from Rudy Gobert, which required a rotation from the weak-side corner to cover Gobert’s man, surrendering corner 3 after open corner 3:
If the second rotation didn’t arrive, Harden lobbed alley-oops to Clint Capela. When Gobert stayed home, he lofted soft floaters over the big man’s outstretched arms. And, on the rare instances Harden didn’t penetrate the first line of Utah’s defense, he rained backbreaking stepback triples over powerless defenders. Such are the impossibilities of defending Harden. On his best nights, no choice is a viable one. When you make life easy for him, as the Jazz did, it erases nearly all hope.
Utah’s lack of offensive creators caused its offense to stall. The contrast in these two teams’ offensive styles is dictated by a drastic difference in personnel. While Houston touts two of the greatest passers isolation scorers in NBA history, the Jazz tend to work by committee. Donovan Mitchell possesses some of the capabilities of an offensive linchpin but doesn’t score efficiently enough to anchor an offense on his own. Utah surrounds him with a cast of players that complement one another and help lift some of the burden from Mitchell’s shoulders. Quin Snyder runs beautiful and complex actions that give his players built-in advantages. The Jazz will station Derrick Favors in just the right spots to take advantage of an inattentive defender or set Joe Ingles up to attack in second-side pick-and-rolls with a head of steam. They move the ball from station to station until an opening forms, then attack it in the appropriate manner.
But against engaged playoff defenses, its lack of playmaking and individual creators manifests in the ugliest ways. Houston, for the most part, shut off Mitchell’s driving lanes, forcing him into a 7-of-18, 5-turnover night. They denied Ingles the spots and situations in which he’s most comfortable while challenging Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale and Thabo Sefolosha into a combined 3-of-19 shooting. Gobert had 22 points on just nine shots, but Houston was more than willing to concede his shots at the rim if it meant taking away Utah’s playmakers. The Jazz simply didn’t have anyone capable of consistently breaking down his man and conjuring open looks. Whatever fissures might have formed in Houston’s defense couldn’t be reliably attacked.
The Jazz know they need their offense to function as a unit to win, and will undoubtedly search for ways to incorporate Ingles, Mitchell and Kyle Korver more smoothly in Game 2.
Chris Paul didn’t look quite himself. Whether by choice or by physical necessity, Paul looked the slightest bit tentative in Game 1. There were flashes of vintage Paul — slick passes to roll men, sharp kickouts to shooters and sly moves in the pick-and-roll — but he wasn’t nearly as aggressive as he was in last year’s second-round series against Utah. He didn’t attack Gobert as relentlessly or seek out his pet shots from the midrange as eagerly, and uncharacteristically committed four of the Rockets’ 10 turnovers. In the first half, Paul showed little interest in shooting at the basket, opting instead to set up teammates for 3s or dunks. That could all be by design — after all, Paul is one of the best players in NBA history at creating efficient shots for others. But if Harden has a down game or Utah changes its defensive gameplan at some point in the series, Houston will need Paul to assert himself a bit more on offense.