At one point on Sunday afternoon, James Harden was matched up above the three point line with Utah center Rudy Gobert, the odds on favorite for defensive player of the year in the NBA. Gobert is an imposing figure on the floor and the best shot blocker in the game. The Jazz love to funnel offensive players to Gobert, who changes any shot he doesn't block. It is a tactic employed by the Rockets when Hakeem Olajuwon, the greatest shot blocker in NBA history, roamed the paint in the 1990s.
The television announcer called it the best one-on-one player in the NBA versus the best defensive player. In the end, Gobert was no match as Harden drove past him effortlessly for a layup in the Rockets rout of the Jazz in game one.
The play, while not terribly fair to Gobert, who is an outstanding rim protector and defender, was illustrative of one matchup problem the Rockets present for the Jazz in their semifinals series. The Jazz start a pair of traditionally-sized big men in Gobert and Derrick Favors. The Rockets love to run screens with their big men near the three point line. That often leaves mismatches like the one described above. And while the Rockets have quicker, more athletic big men like Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker who are able to switch and guard smaller players, the Jazz will be forced to pit less-than-fleet-footed big men against several of the best individual offensive players in the NBA including Harden.
Additionally, the Rockets, like the Golden State Warriors, have the ability to play five similarly sized guys at the same time, all of whom can shoot well from the outside. Utah dominated the league defensively by planting big guys like Gobert and Favors in the paint where they could prevent drives to the basket. Big men don't typically have to come out and guard the three point line, but against the Rockets they very well may have to do that.
It leaves the Jazz with the unenviable decision of giving up open three pointers or easy layups. This is exacerbated by the loss of point guard Ricky Rubio, who is a very good on-the-ball defender on the perimeter. Rubio might be back for the series, but it is looking increasingly unlikely, leaving them with a defensive hole on the outside against one of the best guard-dominated offenses in the league.
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Then, there is the problem of offense. The Jazz were the 15th ranked offense in the NBA during the regular season and are 10th in the playoffs, in essence, mediocre. And with all the talk of Utah's great defense, the Rockets 6th-ranked defense has been overlooked.
Not only are the Rockets good defenders, but their ability to warp the play of other teams thanks to their ridiculously explosive offense has been a hallmark for them all season. Teams tend to shoot more threes and play faster than they would like against the Rockets because of all the pressure they create by scoring in bunches while still defending well on the other end.
In the first round, Minnesota, a team that shot fewer threes (and made fewer) than any team in the NBA increased their average number of three pointers taken from 22 to 30, dropping their percentage from 36 percent to 33 with those extra shots. The Rockets combination of tenacious defense and nonstop offense forced the Wolves to alter their game plan.
Maybe Utah will unravel the mystery of the Rockets, but chances are they won't be able to do that any more than Rudy Gobert will be able to stay with a driving James Harden.