April 28, 2018, 9:55 pm
There are no truly unstoppable forces or immovable objects in the NBA. LeBron James is the league’s closest facsimile, but there’s a reason why he only has three Larry O’Brien trophies despite eight trips to the Finals and might lose a first-round series for the first time in his career. Success is driven by stars in basketball, and the on-court ethos their singular presence promotes. There’s always a path for quality opponents to mitigate the influence of those luminaries, though, one rooted in the reality of the foremost team game in professional sports.
No playoff matchup will prove a better example of that fact than the second-round series between the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. Led by James Harden and Chris Paul, flanked by a bevy shooters, like-sized defenders and rim-running, shot-blocking, lob-catching center Clint Capela, the Rockets embody where the game is going – at least according to stat heads like Daryl Morey. They became the first team in league history to attempt more threes than twos this season, and bucked the long-time bugaboo of squads helmed by Mike D’Antoni with a relentlessly switchy defense that ranked just outside the league’s top-five.
At first glance, the Utah Jazz are antiquated by comparison. They’ve been at their best in 2017-18 when Rudy Gobert plays with Derrick Favors, an almost shocking development given the struggles Quin Snyder had keeping them on the floor together over the previous two seasons – and the first two and-a-half months of this one. The Jazz run more pick-and-roll than any other team, but their ball-screen action, frequently flowing from one into the next on a single possession, is far more nuanced than Houston’s. Snyder calls his offensive approach “advantage basketball,” and it’s one as intricate as it is intuitive, designed to give all players the half step ahead of the defense most can’t consistently get by themselves.
Harden and Chris Paul can. What drastically altered Utah’s fortunes, in both the present and future, is that the same can be said for Donovan Mitchell. The rookie averaged 28.2 points per game on solid 55.5 percent true shooting against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and poured in 28 second-half points during his team’s closeout win on Friday. Mitchell went 3-of-5 on pull-up triples in Game 6, and is shooting 10-of-28 on those attempts in the playoffs overall. It’s absolutely crucial against the Rockets that he continues splashing threes off the dribble with workable efficiency. Mitchell made just 29.0 percent of his pull-up 3-point tries during the regular season, the exact type of shot Houston’s defensive scheme is capable of goading from every opposing ball handler.
Beating his primary defender, whoever it may be, to finish at the rim will be easier for Mitchell when Snyder downsizes. The Jazz much prefer pairing Gobert and Favors up front, but Houston’s ability to space the floor around ball screens and isolations for Harden and Paul makes playing two traditional big men untenable. Utah had a 103.6 offensive rating and 132.6 defensive rating in the 40 minutes Gobert and Favors shared the floor against Houston during the regular season. It’s certainly worth noting that Snyder’s other most frequent tandems were blown away, too, owed to the Rockets’ perfect 4-0 record against the Jazz – with each win coming by double-digits.
Unlike Oklahoma City, Houston never plays more than one exploitable defender at a time. Even Harden is a hands bully in the post, and Ryan Anderson has improved his lateral mobility from imperceptible to almost passable. Utah got more and more comfortable attacking mismatches as the first round went on, but it’s no coincidence that the Thunder’s most successful lineups, with Carmelo Anthony on the bench, switched across the floor. Mitchell is the Jazz’s only player dynamic enough to create offense no matter who is guarding him. No team in the league is more adept at re-switching behind the play and abandoning non-shooters to offer strong-side help than the Rockets, either. Favors has nascent 3-point range to the corners, is an underrated mid-range shooter and has fantastic touch around the basket. He’ll get good post position on smaller defenders on occasions this series and take advantage. But Houston won’t guard him on the perimeter away from the ball, and committing to small-ball will lessen the opportunities Harden and Paul have to embarrass big men on the other end of the floor.
The Jazz opened their last matchup with the Rockets switching Gobert onto Harden. They won’t in the Western Conference Semifinals, instead dropping him back to the paint while Joe Ingles, Mitchell, Rubio, Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum and even Jonas Jerebko trail in aggressive rearview pursuit to contest a pull-up three. It takes a village. Harden, a basketball mathematician, hates two-point jumpers, and so do the Rockets on the whole. Houston took by far the fewest amount of two-point jumpers in the league during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass, but will have to bend its rules a bit with Gobert waiting at the rim. Paul is definitely comfortable reverting back to the mid-range game; whether or not Harden will be is among the biggest swing factors this series has to offer.
The Rockets are the favorites, and rightfully so. Offense will be harder to come by than normal given the looming threat of Gobert and Utah’s litany of quality perimeter defenders to throw at Harden and Paul, but they will generally employ the same offensive attack that set the league on fire in 2017-18. The Jazz won’t have that luxury. All the minor missteps and small creases their constant movement on offense creates are lessened by a defense that doesn’t only possess the principals needed to successfully switch one-through-five, but the personnel necessary to do so seamlessly. On every possession, the advantages upon which Utah relies just won’t exist to their normal extent; Jeff Bzdelik’s defense forces opponents to be simple.
Mitchell’s turn as postseason superstar gives the Jazz more than a puncher’s chance, but he won’t be able to beat Houston alone. Utah needs streaky shooters like Rubio and Crowder to knock down the few open looks they find, and must fight the temptation to leave marksmen when defending away from the ball – no matter how many points Harden creates for himself and Capela in isolation or pick-and-roll play.
The Jazz are really good, and complement Gobert’s supreme effect at the rim with several viable defenders of Harden and Paul. Defensively, it’s hard to envision a team better suited to slowing down the Rockets. But Utah, putting so much pressure on a rookie guard, is inherently limited offensively, and Houston’s defensive system only further exacerbates the problems that reality presents.
ROCKETS IN 5
October 15, 2019, 2:48 pmHasheem ThabeetC, Free Agent
Hasheem Thabeet signed a G-League contract on Tuesday per Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Thabeet had multiple workouts this summer but ultimately came up short on getting a camp invite. He'll play in the G-League with an eye towards getting back in the BNA at some point if he shows well. Thabeet has no fantasy value.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:45 pmDavis BertansF, Washington Wizards
Both Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura were wearing the white jerseys, joining Ish Smith, Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant as starters in Tuesday's practice.
There were whispers of the Wizards shifting the sharp-shooting Bertans up to the three spot as the team deals with a multitude of injuries, and this practice is a good indication of the team doing so. Bertans makes for a nice late-round pick for his propensity to knock down triples.
Source: Candace Buckner on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:39 pmIsaiah ThomasPG, Washington Wizards
Isaiah Thomas (left thumb surgery) has been shooting with both hands recently but there is still no timetable for his return.
Thomas is roughly four weeks post-surgery and looks to be getting closer to a return. He will miss the first chunk of games and then will compete with Ish Smith for minutes at the PG position. Thomas will have every opportunity to show that he still has it and makes for a fine late-round lottery ticket.
Source: Chris Miller on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:34 pmReggie HearnG, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have signed G Reggie Hearn to contract and waived David Stockton in a corresponding move on Tuesday.
Hearn, a six-year G-League veteran out of Northwestern, will likely return to the G-League after the preseason. He is off the fantasy radar.
Source: Dave McMenamin on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:23 pmKyle LowryPG, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry (left thumb surgery) said that he will be ready to go for opening night.
Lowry, who will turn 34 in March, also said that he feels better than ever and credited that to how he takes care of his body. The Raptors are going to need Lowry to be a scorer this year, and he will have every opportunity to do so.
Source: Josh Lewenberg on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:17 pmDevin CannadyG, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have signed guards Devin Cannady and CJ Massinburg to unspecified contracts on Tuesday.
Cannady and Massinburg are not on the fantasy radar.
Source: Brian Lewis on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:13 pmAhmad CaverG, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have signed G Ahmad Caver to a contract on Tuesday while waiving waived guard Dusty Hannahs in a corresponding move.
The terms of the deal have not yet been disclosed, but it's likely to get Caver on the team's G-League affiliate. The undrafted rookie out of Old Dominion, Caver, does not hold any fantasy value.
Source: Grizzlies PR on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:08 pmCody MartinPF, Charlotte Hornets
Cody Martin (right ankle sprain) is questionable to face the Pistons on Wednesday.
Martin has missed too much valuable time to put himself in the early season conversation. Martin will have a chance to get playing time when he gets healthy, but he is not on the fantasy radar to start the year.
Source: Hornets PR on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:06 pmMarvin WilliamsPF, Charlotte Hornets
Marvin Williams (illness) is listed as probable vs the Pistons on Wednesday.
Williams is the elder statesman on a team looking at getting an early lottery pick and develop their young guys. Williams is expected to come off the bench, with a potential trade looming at some point this season.
Source: Hornets PR on Twitter
October 15, 2019, 2:00 pmNicolas BatumSG, Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets are listing Nicolas Batum (sore right Achilles) as out for Wednesday's game against the Pistons.
Batum is starting to look extremely questionable for opening day. With the team already intent on developing their younger guys, there is a chance that Batum doesn't get his starting job back should the injury continue to linger. P.J. Washington is a name to consider towards the end of drafts.
Source: Hornets PR on Twitter