When the Houston Rockets lost the final game of the regular season and tumbled from second to fourth in the Western Conference, the road back to the Western Conference Finals was made immediately tougher. Even the opening round match-up against Utah was considered to be a slugfest, after the Jazz went 30-12 to close the regular season. But the opening game of the NBA Playoffs saw James Harden and the Rockets cruise to victory after building up a substantial lead against the fifth seed.
In many ways, when Houston played Milwaukee at the end of March, the Bucks tipped off a gameplan that much of the Western Conference might have been keeping in its pocket for the playoffs. Head Coach, Mike Budenholzer sat his best defenders on James Harden’s left arm, stopping him from rising for a three-point shot, but allowing him the lane where two bigs were sitting in the paint. This forced Harden to miss mid-range floaters and attempt erroneous passes to Clint Capela over the long-limbed frontcourt of Milwaukee.
Fast forward to Houston’s first game of the playoffs, and the defensive principles that worked so well for Milwaukee were like going through the motions of a video game where you forget to hit save and have to start back at a much earlier, easier level. Harden knew exactly what to do. Since March, Houston will have worked on actions against such a defense and the team’s superstar will have worked on a mid-range floater ad nauseum.
The result? 122-90.
Part of the reason the Rockets offense worked much better against the Jazz is that the Utah’s defense, while good, was not what it needed to be against Houston. Rudy Gobert had a decent game by the numbers, but for much of the game, he and Derrick Favors lacked the communication required to cut of the lob to Capela when Harden entered the lane.
That’s not to say stopping Harden’s passing is easy. He has become one of the best passers in the league, in part thanks to his strong 6’5 frame. Of the field goals that were attempted off his passes, 59.1 percent of them went in. The Beard is able to get into the lane and still see over the top of a defense even when crowded. When added to his great ability to hit shooters in the pocket, or Capela at the peak of his jump, he opens up so many opportunities on the floor.
Compare this to when Harden was on the bench or resting on offense and letting Chris Paul run sets. Just 32.1 percent of field goal attempts off his passes were converted into points. Defenders were far happier to meet Paul in the mid-range area, as a lack of height and reduced athleticism, due to injuries in recent years, means his passes (while still accurate) are not as clean as they once were. Receivers are often reaching to grab Paul’s passes, or he doesn’t act as a strong enough threat to cause additional defenders to help off their coverage, so the shot is more difficult.
On the other end of the floor, the Rockets defense was solid. But it was helped by a woeful offensive effort from the Jazz.
Only three of the line-ups that Jazz head coach Quin Snyder rolled out in the first game had a positive impact and two of them only played 1.8 minutes. The only strong five-man rotation was the team’s starting five. However, the unit of Ricky Rubio, Favors, Gobert, Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell had limited ball movement.
When Mitchell went to the bench at the start of the second quarter, the combination of Favors, Ingles, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver and Raul Neto played a brand of passing and moving basketball that helped cut the deficit. The Rockets also struggled slightly offensively with Harden on the bench, but with everyone having to be confident in their shot, the Jazz pulled Utah back into the game. Every time Mitchell returned, the squad froze up and let their superstar on offense work by himself, which made defending the team that much easier for Houston.
The blowout scoreline is slightly ambiguous, as there were moments during the opening game that were highly competitive. But this is not the Harden of previous years. The shooting guard is able to adapt and attack with precision and will, and it’ll be on Snyder to get Utah into the solid defensive position it had during the regular season.
If he doesn’t, the Jazz could be hearing their exit music after just four or five games.
Feature photo – Elsa Garrison / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington