There are two things you need to do in order to have success in the playoffs. The first thing you need to do is to impose your will, your style upon another team. Make them adjust. The second thing you need to do is to be able to counter what they do best. This is the NBA, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get your opposition’s best shot. How do you counter that? One way that you do it is you simply beat them at their own game. That’s how the Houston Rockets defeated the Utah Jazz in the first round in a mere five games and gained the luxury of a few days rest over their second-round opponent.
In Games 1 and 2, the Rockets imposed their will, blowing by the Jazz behind torrid three-point shooting that saw them knock down 32 combined triples in the two games. James Harden was practically unstoppable, playing the — we’ll just call it unique — Jazz defensive approach with incredible dexterity that led to a triple double average and complete control of the Toyota Center court.
Utah countered with historically typical Jazz vitriol and adjusted defensively on Harden, essentially making stopping The Beard from beating them their sole focus. And they did indeed make Harden’s life difficult, especially in the paint. But the thing is, The Beard still got his. He finished the series with averages of 27.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 8 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.
Not only that, once the Jazz realized that they couldn’t hang with the Rockets offensively and decided to utilize their top-ranked defense (number one in adjusted team defensive rating this year) to make the series a slugfest, the Rockets proved they were no slouch defenders as well.
The Rockets finished the year 19th overall in adjusted team defensive rating, though they were second in rating after the All-Star break, and they proved against Utah that they could beat a team with their defense as well as their offense.
The Jazz averaged just 97.8 points per game and they shot just 40 percent from the field in the series and only 26 percent from deep. The Rockets forced 73 turnovers in the five games, including 46 off of steals, and they finished the series with a sparkling 99.2 defensive rating.
The Jazz hit just 47 triples (compared to Houston’s 77), and the Rockets held Utah’s Donovan Mitchell to 32 percent shooting from the field with a primary combination of Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers and the team’s secondary switchability.
To anyone criticizing Utah’s offense to denigrate Houston’s defensive performance, please note that the Jazz finished 10th overall in the NBA in three-pointers made, and they came into the game one of the hottest scoring teams in the league and were the fourth-highest-rated offense since the All-Star break. And the Rockets completely shut them down.
Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Korver, Joe Ingles, and Jae Crowder combined for 9 threes per game this season. They hit just 30 total in 5 games against the Rockets, or just two-thirds of their normal average. Sure, they missed some open shots, but those poor shooting strokes and legs were absolutely contributed to by the energy the Jazz were using to attempt to slow down Harden and Houston’s offense, along with the defensive effort of Houston themselves.
This versatile ability to counter is something I’ve seen in title runs before, and that bodes well for the Rockets’ playoff chances moving forward. One thing I’ll always remember about Houston’s 1994 title team is how well they countered such a wide variety of styles on their way to the championship.
They beat a more experienced Portland Trail Blazers team in round one, and then they outgunned a normally high-flying Phoenix Suns team in the Conference Semifinals before outworking the John Stockton-Karl Malone, pick-and-roll-you-to-death Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals. They finished it up by outmuscling one of the physically toughest teams of a generation in the rugged New York Knicks.
They imposed their will offensively by continuing to run everything through Hakeem Olajuwon and surrounding him with competent outside shooting (sound familiar 2019 Rockets fans?), while utilizing locked-in defense to often beat the opposition at their own game.
Thankfully, this year’s team is deep and versatile, which is going to allow them to counter almost any style they face and any tricks or adjustments made mid-series. They rolled out a nine-deep rotation against Utah, and that’s not counting possible additional options in Nene and Iman Shumpert, who received minimal playing time. Right now, overall, they’re playing better defense than last year’s team.
Whether it’s the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Portland Trail Blazers, the San Antonio Spurs, or the Denver Nuggets, if the Rockets continue to defend at a high level while putting this much offensive pressure on teams, beating the Jazz at their own game was just a small taste of what’s hopefully to come.