The two best defensive teams in the NBA since the All-Star break would seem to make for a rather low-scoring playoff series. That was true of one team on Sunday night at Toyota Center. The Rockets, particularly in the fourth quarter, shut down the Jazz offense and finished off Game One 122-90, the second largest margin of victory in the playoffs for the franchise.
They also got key contributions from players like Eric Gordon and Danuel House to go with solid play from the big three of James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela. Despite the margin of victory, the Jazz cut the lead to 4 and 5 points on two separate occasions, but a big fourth quarter and stifling defense resulted in a Rockets win.
This may not have been Hakeem Olajuwon versus Patrick Ewing or David Robinson, but the Clint Capela-Rudy Gobert center matchup turned out to be a pretty good one. Capela finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds while Gobert had a career playoff high of 22 points to go with 12 boards. This wasn't a traditional, back-to-the-basket grind match, however. Both players scored on a number of lobs and offensive rebounds. But both were key for their respective teams, an oddity in today's NBA.
Foul Discrepancy Conspiracy Theorists
For those who believe the NBA is out to get the Rockets and Harden specifically, tonight would certainly be fuel for their next conspiracy theory-filled rants on their YouTube channels. The Jazz were the third ranked team in the NBA in free throws, but the Rockets were seventh, so for Houston to take only 12 to the Jazz 27 free throws was pretty strange. Even more questionable was Harden's three attempts, for the guy who led the league in that category. In the end, it didn't much matter, but don't expect that to continue.
Rockets Complementary Players
Eric Gordon (17), Danuel House (11), P.J. Tucker (11) and Kenneth Faried (11) led a crew of secondary and bench players who dominated the Jazz all night. Utah seemed convinced it must stop Harden, hoping the other players wouldn't be able to beat them. They bet wrong as guys not named Harden, Paul and Capela took it to them all night.
Ultimately, this game was about defense. Not only did the Rockets hold the Jazz to 90 points and 39 percent shooting, they shut the Jazz down in the first and fourth quarters holding them to 20 and 19 points respectively. They closed out on shooters, holding the Jazz to under 30 percent from the three point line and forced 18 turnovers.
Rockets Shortened Playoff Bench
So much for the idea the Coach Mike D'Antoni would revert to his standard eight- or eight-and-a-half-man rotations for the playoffs. By early in the fourth quarter, the Rockets had played 10 players with four of the reserves playing 13 minutes or more. That and the blowout lead allowed the Rockets to limit minutes for their starters, but it also helped the team look fresh throughout game one.
The Jazz star guard was held to 19 points on 7-18 shooting, mostly by terrific defense from Gordon. More importantly, he didn't really seem part of the action to his normal degree until later in the game when things were already out of hand. Mitchell has the ability to blow up offensively and hit incredible shots. Keeping him off his game will be critical to the entire series.
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Third Quarter Rockets Starts
After leading by 15 at the half, the Jazz went on a run to start the third quarter, cutting it to 5. D'Antoni after the game said, "I thought we were a little careless. We came out in the second half a little soft. We have to cure that. You can't mess with the game." Fortunately, the Rockets immediately went on a 10-0 run and the game was quickly back in hand, but those slow stretches have haunted the Rockets this season and could have cost them on Sunday.
Jazz Harden Defensive Strategy
Utah coach Quin Snyder clearly watched tape of the Rockets-Milwaukee games this year and saw how they shaded Harden on his left hand and forced him off the three point line because that was their strategy in Game One. The only problem is that Harden has seen it before and the Jazz don't have the individual defenders the Bucks do. As a result, Harden ended up with 29 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds, content in the first half to dish off to his teammates before cranking it up offensively later in the game. That Jazz, who had not employed that defense all season, looked completely out of sorts on that end of the floor. They probably need to reconsider that strategy.