It’s one of the most well-known quotes in the history of sports, “Defense wins championships.” And for the Houston Rockets, they are well on their way to receiving that long-awaited NBA title. After a hot start to the postseason, the Rockets look as if they are the team to beat out West, and Houston firmly believes they are a significantly better team than last postseason.
As the Rockets head into Game 3, they look completely unstoppable in their series against the Utah Jazz. With the help of some home cooking, the Rockets took advantage and won the first two games by an average margin of 26 points per game, while shooting 49.1-percent from the field, 38.6-percent from behind the arc.
James Harden leads the way for Houston, averaging 30 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 10.0 assists, and has the Rockets nearly flawless on the offensive end. However, despite their dominance offensively, the biggest reason for the Rockets 2-0 series lead is credited to their play on defense.
So far this playoffs, the Rockets look like the best defensive team in the league. Houston is currently holding the Jazz to 94.0 points per game and shooting 39.4-percent from the field. Even more impressive, the Rockets have forced the Jazz to shoot 23.1-percent from beyond three, making Utah the second worst three-point shooting team of the postseason.
Sure, the Jazz have never been a team known for having an explosive offense, but their playoff numbers are far from their regular season stats: 111.7 points on 46.8-percent shooting from the field, 35.6-percent from deep.
As the series shifts to Vivint Smart Home Arena in Utah, no one on the Jazz’s roster is averaging close to 20 points. Coming into Game 3, Jazz’s All-Star caliber center, Rudy Gobert, comes in as the team’s leading scorer averaging 16.5 points per game.
Although the Rockets have allowed Gobert to score with ease from the inside, the defense played on Donovan Mitchell has been Houston’s biggest key in slowing down the Jazz. So much so, Mitchell vowed to take a different and much more aggressive approach Saturday night in hopes of turning their 0-2 deficit around.
Although defending Mitchell is far from the likes of defending Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Rockets have had their share of struggles slowing down the Jazz’s rising star in the past.
Coming off of a sensational sophomore season where he averaged a career-high 23.8 points a game, Mitchell helped lead the Jazz to a 2-2 regular-season series against the Rockets. This season against Houston, Mitchell averaged 23.3 points on 40-percent shooting from the field. His most dominating performance came in an early-season showdown where Mitchell notched 38 points to lead the Jazz to a 110-89 victory over their Western-Conference rival.
However, despite the Rockets seemingly not having an answer for Mitchell during the regular season, the start of the first round of the playoffs has been nowhere near a struggle. In their second-straight postseason matchup with Utah, the Rockets are holding the 22-year-old guard to just 15 points per game on 32-percent shooting from the field. For a player who relies heavily on getting to the basket to score points, the Rockets defense has forced Mitchell to turn into a perimeter jump-shooter, averaging 7.5 threes a game and making them at a rate of only 26.7-percent.
To put the effect the Rockets’ defense is having on Mitchell in perspective, the Jazz’s young star currently has more total turnovers (nine) than assists (six) in the first two games of the series. While their defense has been a total team effort to contain Mitchell, a large portion of the Rockets success is credited to Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers.
Eric Gordon has had the primary responsibility (along with Austin Rivers) of defending Donovan Mitchell. In Game 1, Gordon held Mitchell to 1-5 shooting, 3 turnovers and a blocked shot. In Game 2, Gordon held Mitchell to 3-10 shooting, 2 turnovers and a blocked shot. #Rockets— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) April 18, 2019
According to NBA.com advance stats, when guarded by both Gordon and Rivers in 46 possessions, Mitchell is averaging a dreadful 5.2 points per game, with a point differential of -1.5 through the first two games of the series. Together, the defensive duo has held Mitchell to 4-for-15 shooting, 5 turnovers, and 3 blocked shots.
When guarding Mitchell alone for 33.5 possessions, Gordon has made it a living nightmare, holding Mitchell to 4.0 points per games and shooting 26.7-percent from the field. His defense on Mitchell has been so impressive that the Jazz’s total offense holds a -11.5 point differential when guarded by Gordon.
As the series shifts to Utah, it’s extremely important for the Rockets to keep their sense of urgency on both ends of the court, especially on the defensive end. If they want to end the series in four games by Monday, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers must continue putting a defensive stronghold on Donovan Mitchell.
With their season on the line, the Jazz will go as far as Mitchell can take them. However, thanks to the tough defense played by the Rockets, Mitchell is leading the Jazz to a quick first-round elimination in four short games.