April 29, 2018, 6:07 pm
The Utah Jazz never quit in Game 1. Unfortunately for Quin Snyder’s team, upsetting the juggernaut Houston Rockets will take much more than resilience in the face of a blowout.
The Rockets beat the Jazz 110-96 at Toyota Center on Sunday, once taking a 26-point lead on the short-handed visitors and reminding the basketball world why they’re legitimate title contenders. James Harden was downright dominant, overcoming some staunch individual defense by Utah to finish with 41 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Chris Paul played well in support, too, scoring 17 points and doling out six assists. The influence of Houston’s two-headed playmaking monster was even more apparent than those stellar numbers suggest given the absence of counterpart Ricky Rubio, sidelined through at best the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals with a hamstring injury. The Jazz relied on a cadre of players to pick up Rubio’s slack, but none of them were able to come close to replicating his impact. Donovan Mitchell, 48 hours removed from an instant-classic performance during his first foray to the postseason, never quite found his range in Game 1. He scored 21 points on 9-of-22 shooting via a typically dizzying array of crossovers, Euro-steps and wrong-foot finishes, but connected on just one of his seven tries from deep.
Coming into this series, the biggest question facing the Jazz was whether or not they would be able to score enough to keep up with the Rockets. The absence of Rubio would complicate that answer against any opponent, obviously, but especially one that mitigates the advantages Utah’s multi-action offensive system usually presents. Houston, true to form, switched one-through-five in Game 1, letting Mitchell dance on the perimeter against overmatched defenders and daring ancillary offensive options to stretch beyond their normal limits. Utah just isn’t that type of team, though. Mitchell is Snyder’s only cog who has the verve to score on any defender in isolation, and Alec Burks, dusted off for 17 minutes to close-out the Thunder, was stymied at the rim time and again by Clint Capela and Nené. Utah’s size advantage was wholly inconsequential; Rudy Gobert didn’t take a single shot in the first half, and Derrick Favors rarely got an opportunity to capitalize in the post with a guard on his back.
Defending Houston was just as big a problem for the Jazz. Royce O’Neale, who got the start for Rubio, opened the game checking Harden, and certainly had his moments sliding his feet with the future MVP on the perimeter. Dante Exum, a flurry of active arms and legs, fared well at times, too. But possessions made difficult for Harden proved fleeting, and he consistently pushed the right buttons after beating his initial defender and meeting Gobert at the rim. There aren’t many players in basketball comfortable finishing over the likely Defensive Player of the Year with their off hand, but Capela, who had 16 points and 16 rebounds, is one of them.
— NBA (@NBA) April 29, 2018
Paul was even more tactful than Harden. He frustrated Utah all over the floor, especially in the first half, splashing threes and finding teammates for layups and open jumpers while taking full advantage of the space provided him from mid-range. Paul’s eyes lit up when the Jazz’s conservative defensive scheme failed, yielding a switch onto the ball from Gobert or Favors. When he’s draining pull-up triples with the ease of Harden, Houston is almost impossible to beat. With Utah finally gaining a sense of sustainable of momentum, Paul ended the third quarter by drilling another off-dribble three over the outstretched arms of Favors, putting his team back up by 18 points heading into the final stanza.
The addition of Rubio really will make a big difference. He’s hardly the complete non-shooter he was a year ago, and is exactly the type of unique passer who can exploit the creases made smaller by Houston’s approach defensively. Rubio can make a difference in transition, too, a sometimes-dormant facet of the game for the Jazz that Snyder clearly hopes to emphasize throughout this series. Even with Rubio in tow, playing half-court offense against the Rockets is a losing proposition for Utah. Without him, there’s only so much the underdogs can do when Mitchell’s pull-up long ball isn’t falling and awaiting shooters fail to make Houston pay for offering extra help. The Jazz went just 7-of-22 from 3-point range despite Jae Crowder, who scored 21 points but couldn’t keep up with Harden and Paul off the bounce, connecting on five of his seven attempts.
Utah can’t count on a shooting effort like that from Crowder again, nor Favors or Gobert coming alive offensively. Mitchell needs to be playing near Harden’s level for his team to have a chance in this series, and even that might not be enough. Good vibes emanating from the Jazz’s second-half, in which they outscored the Rockets by 57-46, also deserve a caveat; Harden and company led 64-39 at intermission, essentially clinching a victory with 24 minutes left.
This series has only just begun. Utah is a much different team at home, and Rubio will eventually be back on the floor. But Houston is just a very tough matchup for the Jazz, a reality made clear by basketball’s top seed with matter-of-fact ease in Game 1.