As I wrote about back in March, Eric Gordon’s 2018-19 regular season was truly a tail of two halves.
In the 2018 portion of the schedule, Gordon appeared very clearly on the decline. He struggled to beat closeouts with the same ease fans had grown accustomed too. His assists were way down. And, most importantly, through 32 games, Gordon was posting career-worst splits of 38 percent from the field and 30 percent from three. Gordon’s shot— the cornerstone of his game— had abandoned him.
However, Gordon’s season turned in late December when a right knee contusion caused him to sit seven straight games leading into 2019. To that point, Gordon had accrued numerous minor injuries and fought through them, even telling Fox 26’s Mark Berman “I know if I’m able to run, I don’t care how much pain I have, I’m gonna play”, so the extended rest likely benefited various areas besides his right knee.
Following that absence, Gordon played the arguably the most efficient basketball of his career to close the season, shooting 44 percent from field and 41 percent from three in his final 36 games.
Luckily for Rockets’ fans, Gordon’s not only carried that rhythm over into the playoffs, but has gone up a notch. Despite having his lowest usage of any playoffs in his career, Gordon’s been en fuego through four games, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 48 percent from three on 3.5 makes per game.
In particular, Gordon’s been the one of the main beneficiaries (along with P.J. Tucker) of the Jazz’s intensive scheme built around forcing James Harden right. Since the Jazz are giving Harden so much runway, the Beard doesn’t need Clint Capela to set him a screen to gain an advantage, allowing Capela to hang out in the dunker spot instead. Capela positioning himself there makes it far harder for Rudy Gobert to track Capela when Gobert is forced to step up on the right-handed Harden drives the Jazz are willingly conceding.
This puts the Jazz in quite the bind, as their perimeter defenders have no choice to crash down on Capela in the dunker spot to take away the lob. Ultimately, this leaves Gordon either a) wide open as the single side shooter or b) as one of the two potentially open Rockets’ shooters on the weak side that a single Jazz defender has to choose between when his crashing teammate causes him to “zone up” (ie. be responsible for two players at once) on the weak side.
Gordon’s already elite in the critical decision all shooters have to make in deciding whether to attack a closeout if it’s early or shoot over it if it’s late. This scheme has almost made it too easy for him.
As I said in that March article, when Gordon is on his game like this, effortlessly making 26 footers and decisively attacking closeouts created by the Rockets’ star guards, he is the multiplier that takes the Rockets from one of the best offenses in the league to one of the best offenses in NBA history.
Furthermore, while Gordon’s played as efficient as ever on offense, his biggest contribution to the Rockets’ cause has been his stifling work defending the Jazz’s leading scorer, Donovan Mitchell. Through four games, Gordon is holding Mitchell to 35.6 percent from field and 32 percent from three— even worse than his underwhelming percentages from last year’s series between the two teams.
Specifically, Gordon’s mix of strength and quickness has made turning the corner a surprisingly tough task for the explosive Mitchell. That inability to get to the rim has caused Mitchell to settle far more often than he’s accustomed, forcing him to take a heightened proportion of his field goal attempts from deep two and floater range.
If this is the Eric Gordon the Rockets get for the rest of the playoffs, defending potent scoring guards at a high level and shooting 40+ percent from three, the NBA landscape certainly has changed.