Houston Rockets’ Dominant Start to Playoffs Is Worse for Utah Jazz Than It Seems
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 14: Gerald Green #14 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Utah Jazz during Game One of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 14, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

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From the first time James Harden had the ball in Sunday’s 122-90 win over the Utah Jazz, it was clear he’d face the gimmicky defense the Milwaukee Bucks threw at him in the regular season.

Ricky Rubio basically sat on his left shoulder. He wasn’t just trying to take that direction away from Harden. He was all but begging him to go right, as seen in this tweet from NBC’s Brody Logan:

For much of Game 1, it sort of worked—at least when it came to slowing Harden individually. He finished with 29 points on 11-of-26 shooting. He only attempted three free throws. His true shooting percentage was 8.5 points below what he posted in the regular season.

And yet, the Houston Rockets cruised. Utah should be worried after suffering the franchise’s second-worst playoff loss, according to StatMuse:

Even in a 32-point drubbing, several things went right for the Jazz.

  • They more than doubled Houston’s attempts from the line (27 to 12).
  • They had Harden somewhat contained.
  • Ricky Rubio went 5-of-11 for 15 points.
  • Rudy Gobert had 22 points and 12 rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting.

That first bullet point could become a trend—the Jazz actually topped the Rockets in both free-throw attempts and free-throw-attempt rate this season—but it’s not likely to be that lopsided.

The huge disparity had a lot to do with Harden only getting to the line three times. In Houston’s gentlemen’s sweep of Utah last season, he took 8.6 free throws per game. Good luck keeping him off the stripe.

As for Rubio, his numbers are encouraging but maybe a bit of a mirage. He was more efficient than usual and scored a few more points than his season average. But Houston will live with Rubio jumpers all series.

The Rockets will stay home on Gobert’s rolls to the rim and hug up on Donovan Mitchell whenever Rubio has the ball. Letting either of them get loose would be far more damaging than a solid game from the pass-first point guard.

And then there’s Gobert. Individually, he was great. Last year, he was fine, too. In the five-game series against Houston, he averaged 12.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 71.4 percent from the field.

But Utah was minus-19.0 points per 100 possessions when Gobert was on the floor in that series—the worst net rating of any player on the team, according to NBA.com. Sunday, he was a team-worst minus-23.

Houston may have figured out the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

The following play posted by BBALLBREAKDOWN has been a common sight when those two teams square off in the postseason:

Gobert finds himself in a dilemma on almost every possession. Whether with Harden or Chris Paul, the Rockets dribble right at him as often as possible. They force him to commit, then lob to Capela as soon as he does. It’s clockwork, at this point.

Of course, Gobert could choose to hang back a little longer, but that increases the risk of either guard getting open pull-ups. Other Jazz defenders could help off the perimeter earlier to try taking away the lob, but both Houston guards are obviously pretty good at finding three-point shooters, as well.

So, what exactly can Utah do?

Playing Derrick Favors more at the 5 might help. His net rating against Houston last postseason was still comfortably in the red, but minus-9.3 is better than minus-19.0. On Sunday, he was the only Jazz player with a positive plus-minus.

He’s a bit more switchable on the perimeter than Gobert, but this honestly might just be grasping at straws. The Rockets will still funnel him plenty of the same pick-your-poison scenarios as the one seen above.

And again, this all happened on a night during which Harden was relatively contained. Things can go better for the Rockets than they did Sunday, especially when he clicks.

“I’ve literally seen every strategy defensively teams can possibly do,” Harden said during the postgame press conference.

This is likely more of an off night than any sort of solution Utah has discovered. And that’s terrifying for anyone in Houston’s path.

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