NBA Playoffs 2018-19: Takeaways From Houston Rockets Routing Utah Jazz
After a scrappy affair that saw struggles for both James Harden and Donovan Mitchell, the Houston Rockets secured a 100-93 win in Game 5 and clinched the series 4-1. Having disposed of the Jazz in five games, they presumably will face the Golden State Warriors (although the LA Clippers could change that).
This was a crucial win for the Rockets to give themselves some time to rest, recoup and prepare for the real test.
It was impressive, albeit an arduous game to secure the series. Harden again shot below 40% from the field, while Mitchell outdid him going 4-22 (an ice-cold 18.2%) and committed five turnovers, two late in the fourth -- showcasing a willingness to embrace the moment but evidently inexperience from the sophomore guard.
Utah was a good team but obviously, are not on the same level as the Warriors. Here are some takeaways from the game.
There was method to the defensive madness
Giving Harden the lane in the first two games -- recreating the defence the Milwaukee Bucks used in their two games against the Rockets -- seemed like well, madness. And in the first two games of this series, it was a catastrophe. Mainly though because it was poorly executed.
When done properly, it causes problems for Harden, who had poor shooting performances in games three, four and five. This defence dictates where and what type of shots he'll take -- allowing him a free route to take floaters over Rudy Gobert (or Derrick Favors) -- and negates his devastating step-back three.
The first half saw them execute the rotations to perfection. Gobert did not over-commit when rotating, even getting a block on Harden as his floater is quite flat. He took four floaters in the first half, each one off the mark.
This defence was truly a sight to behold. Twice (in the first half alone), Harden was at the corner 3-point line and Ricky Rubio was literally out of bounds defending him -- behind Harden, shading his left side, locked in the dance.
The next steps to the routine went as followed.
First possession: Harden rose up from three, missing. Rubio's presence was certainly felt, even if he was not directly blocking the line of sight.
Second possession: Harden waited to see how the defence reacted before a one-dribble drive and kick out to PJ Tucker. Gobert was ready to cover the penetration and Tucker's man was able to rotate out enough to persuade the shot.
Both possessions were wins for Utah.
This defence, more so than others, needs absolute focus every possession. Early in the third, Rubio and Harden were locked in the same tango in the same part of the court. Except, instead of calculating the next steps, Harden saw Gobert wasn’t in position and attacked. A late rotation from Gobert resulted in Jae Crowder pulled out of position and Harden found Tucker for the open three.
In the fourth, Harden again found himself at the top of the arc with Rubio behind him. The dance now mastered, he separated fast from Rubio but slowed and took his time on his floaters -- knocking two crucial ones down the stretch.
Harden doesn’t always seem comfortable taking this shot, though he has worked on it tremendously. It could be partly because he knows it's what the defence wants to him to do.
Unfortunately, giving last year's MVP floaters to ice the game doesn’t sound as great as it does letting him fire off the floaters in the first quarter. Golden State, playing something like this is doubtful, with enough defensive stars to switch onto him.
But don’t be too surprised if Steve Kerr pulls something similar to this at some point, using Andrew Bogut to camp and meet him around the floater range, with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant fast and agile enough to contest the Clint Capela lob.
Play your big mans the right way
When your best player is shooting below 40% or your team has missed the most open 3-point attempts in the playoffs. It’s a blessing to get some ‘easy’ buckets. Gobert and Capela are what they are, and it’s useful and often underappreciated. Both of them snagged 4 offensive rebounds for extra possessions.
Capela was rim running like a freaking antelope, putting pressure on the Jazz defence to get back early.
Gobert was seemingly the scapegoat in the first two games. ‘Utah can matchup with 27 teams in the NBA’. Goberts inability to switch proving to be a fatal flaw against Golden State and Houston.
But he was effective when they executed this defence correctly and put immense pressure when Harden or Paul would drive to the rim. On offence, he made the rockets pay for switching on him early in the second quarter, getting some big dunks.
Admittedly, he does also cause problems for Mitchell as his man clogs the lane when he drives. But again, their needs to be better execution on his team's offence to put him in a more effection position.
The Jazz do not have reliable shooters, which then allows the lane to get even more congested. Factor that with Mitchells own decision making down the stretch. While courageous it was equally questionable and more a reflection of his own inability to create when the lane is clogged
Point being, if you’re going to have a big man out there playing hard. Don’t ignore them on offence, aim to punish switches on offence and not just let him get wiped on defence. Put them in positions to be successful.
Rockets are susceptible to cold streaks
If James Harden goes 0-15 to start the game and you still lose, you deserve to lose in 5. But some credit needs to go to Tucker and Gordon and the other role players.
Rockets need them to keep up this hot shooting. The unfortunate Achilles heel of the rockets is there tendency to go cold due to the style they play. I talked about this in depth in a previous article.
They have no quick hits in their playbook to get some of their role players involved. So when everyone starts missing shots. It can be an exponential problem.
Obviously, if Harden plays this inefficiently against Golden State (Again - Assuming they win their series). They lose. He needs to bring it all to the table at least four times if they want to make it to the Western Conference Finals.
He has yet to have a significant MVP-type calibre series in his career thus far. And although he needs to play better. He is great enough to bounce back strong. This might end up being the kind of series they needed, where their role players stepped up and determined the outcome of multiple games.