The Utah Jazz employed every form of defense they could think of, all meant to slow down the Rockets and, more importantly, their MVP, James Harden. Yet, in the end, it was their inability to score that cost them. With 1:32 left in game five, the Rockets led 94-93. The Jazz never scored again thanks to multiple turnovers and missed shots — including a huge strip of Rudy Gobert by Harden, who had five fouls — that sealed the game and the series 100-93.
The Rockets now head on to likely face Golden State. But before moving on, let's take a quick look back at the Rockets win over the Jazz.
Say what you will about Harden and Chris Paul and Clint Capela, but it wouldn't be difficult to argue the most valuable Rocket in this series was Gordon. Not only did he average 15 points, shooting 54 percent from beyond the arc, but he played absolute lights out shut down defense on Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. For his struggles early in the season, Gordon has certainly put it all together at the right time.
James Harden Fans
There will be discussions of this game in the national media that go something like, "Harden had a pretty lackluster series overall." And yet, he averaged 27 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals in a 4-1 series win in which the first two games were blowouts. All of this came against a Utah team playing a defense specifically designed to force Harden to give the ball up or take bad shots. In game five, he was a plus-19 with 3 steals and 4 blocked shots to go with his 26 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. But haters gonna hate.
Clint Capela's Doctor
In the first four games of this series, Capela was sick with some kind of upper respiratory infection. His energy and demeanor, never mind reports from the team, showed he was not close to 100 percent, particularly at the high altitude of Salt Lake City. But, whatever miracle cure he got before game five clearly worked. Capela went for 16 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks in 36 minutes. Whatever magical elixir his doctor whipped up, get a batch ready for round two.
"Defense Wins Championships" Narrative
Games four and five are not the kind of NBA contests you'll put in a highlight reel. They were slow, plodding and mostly a defensive battle. But it does reinforce the tired if often accurate concept of defense being the key to playoff success. Scoring is almost always down in the postseason as teams work hard to take away what their opponents do best. That was certainly the idea in this series as both teams slugged it out for three of the five games. Fortunately, the Rockets won, so who cares how it looked?
Jazz Three Point Shooting
As great as the Jazz were defensively this year and in this series, it was their lack of offense that hammered the nails in their coffin. And there were few greater indicators than their three point shooting percentage for the series: 26 percent. During the regular season, they shot 10 points better than that, but they could not find the range against the Rockets and that was a killer.
Donovan Mitchell 4-22, 0-9
Except for the fourth quarter of game four, this series was a nightmare for the star second year guard. In game five, he went 4-22 from the floor and 0-9 from three. In the three road games, he averaged 13 points on 27 percent shooting from the floor. Mitchell has real talent and he will bounce back, but this is a series he will want to forget.
In the modern era of high flying and fast paced action, the Rockets-Jazz series was a throwback. The pace was generally to the liking of the Jazz, who preferred to slow things down and make the Rockets beat them in the half court. It was effective at keeping the Rockets from scoring in bunches, but the Rockets play defense too and Utah's lack of easy baskets really hurt them. It is unlikely that this trend will continue in the second round.
There has rarely been anything more odd than the sight of a Jazz defender standing behind James Harden as he dribbled towards the basket and doing it on purpose. Utah rolled out one of the more unorthodox defenses you'll ever see with the intent of stopping Harden and slowing the pace of the Rockets. It worked OK except for the fact that the Rockets only lost one game in the series. Few teams in the league would employ such a strategy and it's fair to say it completely backfired on the Jazz.