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
April 19, 2019, 10:26 pmPascal Siakam - F - Toronto Raptors
Pascal Siakam dropped an efficient 30 points on 13-for-20 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds, four assists and three threes in Friday night's 98-93 win over the Magic.
Siakam led Toronto in field goal attempts on a night where Kawhi struggled to make a consistent impact and his team needed every bit of it to outlast a pesky Orlando team on the road. The Cameroonian forward has been on fire to start the playoffs and will look to keep it going in Game 4.
April 19, 2019, 10:19 pmKawhi Leonard - F - Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard had 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and one steal as the Raptors were able to find enough scoring from the supporting cast to beat the Magic on Friday night.
Aaron Gordon matched up with Kawhi for most of this one and did a good job keeping him uncomfortable as he struggled with a 5-for-19 shooting night. Head coach Nick Nurse indicated after the game that Leonard has been dealing with an illness that kept him from practicing the last two days so that may have had something to do with his struggles as well.
Source: Mike Ganter on Twitter
April 19, 2019, 10:12 pmKyle Lowry - G - Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry posted 12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, two threes, one steal and one block in Friday's win on the road against the Magic.
Not only did Lowry have a nice full line, he made a lot of hustle plays that helped Toronto to an ugly playoff win on the road. He is responding nicely after struggling in Game 1, proving that he can be productive in the playoffs.
April 19, 2019, 10:05 pmDanny Green - G/F - Toronto Raptors
Danny Green notched 13 points with three three-pointers, one steal and one block on Friday night.
On a night where Kawhi didn't have it going from three (0-for-3), Green stepped up with an efficient shooting night and his trademark defense to help Toronto win an ugly one on the road.
April 19, 2019, 10:00 pmNikola Vucevic - C - Orlando Magic
Nikola Vucevic finally looked like himself on Friday night as he dropped 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and one steal as the Magic fell 98-93 to the Raptors at home.
Vucevic broke out of his playoff slump, but unfortunately Orlando dealt with poor shooting nights from DJ Augustin (3-for-7) and Evan Fournier (1-for-12) that ultimately sunk them on their home floor.
April 19, 2019, 9:53 pmAaron Gordon - F - Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon only scored 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds and one steal on Friday night.
While Gordon's line doesn't jump off the page, it was Kawhi's struggles from the field (5-for-19) that highlighted the impact he had on this game. Gordon's strong defensive effort helped the Magic stay alive on a cold shooting night but it wasn't enough to win.
April 19, 2019, 9:46 pmJonathan Isaac - F - Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac chipped in a solid performance on Friday night against the Raptors with 14 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two blocks and two made threes.
Isaac was a big part of how Orlando was able to keep the game close in the first half, but his struggles from the field (4-for-11) and three (2-for-7) kept him off the floor in the fourth quarter as the his team attempted a final comeback.
April 19, 2019, 9:40 pmTerrence Ross - G/F - Orlando Magic
Terrence Ross played 32 minutes off the bench and scored 24 points on 8-for-17 shooting, including five made threes and two steals in Friday's loss to the Raptors.
On a night where the Magic got virtually nothing from Evan Fournier, Ross came through with a huge performance. Unfortunately, the big game from Ross wasn't enough for Orlando to overcome a poor night from its starting guards and a lackluster effort on the defensive boards.
April 19, 2019, 8:39 pmBlake Griffin - F - Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin (left knee soreness) is listed as questionable to play in Saturday’s Game 3 vs. the Bucks.
Griffin has already missed the first two games against Milwaukee. Detroit hasn’t been very competitive without him and they’ll need the big man if they hope to even up the series at home. Thon Maker would likely get another start if Griffin isn’t able to play.
Source: NBA INjury Report
April 19, 2019, 6:03 pmTony Snell - G - Milwaukee Bucks
Tony Snell (left ankle sprain) is not on the injury report for Saturday's Game 3 vs. the Pistons.
Snell has been expected to miss Games 1 and 2 (he did) so it looks like his timetable to return is correct. He's an important part of what the Bucks do but his value isn't as apparent in fantasy. Snell also might be eased into it since he's been out of action for a while.
Source: NBA Injury Report