HOUSTON — Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz's 120-99 loss to the Houston Rockets from KSL.com's Utah Jazz beat writer, Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz fly around on defense for three quarters, but it falls apart in 4th
Despite a 21-point defeat, I honestly think there are more positives for the Jazz to take away from this game than negatives. After all, with 10 minutes left to go in the game, the Jazz had an eight-point lead on the Western Conference leaders who have won 13 straight games. So for 38 minutes, they played pretty phenomenally.
I especially liked what they were doing on the defensive end, making the Rockets make difficult passes in order to get their preferred shots. In some recent games, the Jazz have been okay with the Rockets getting isolation looks, but tonight, they flipped the switch and helped whenever possible.
That meant being up high on pick and rolls, sending help against mismatches, and collapsing in the paint. Take this, for example:
Today's Triple Team videos: Jazz force Harden to make some difficult passes with high pressure. (In particular, look at how the defense is in a different place when Harden picks up this ball and when it gets intercepted) pic.twitter.com/cwJMqR8DC1— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 19, 2017
Jonas Jerebko is the center for the Jazz, so can't afford to let James Harden attack him at the rim. So they push him up high to try to get Harden in the corner, just long enough for him Burks to recover. Here, Tarik Black slips the screen, but by the time Harden has completed picking up the ball throwing the lob pass over Alec Burks hands, Jerebko is already back in great defensive position.
What if that pass does work? Well, now you have a big man who has to make a play. Send that help again, sell-out, get lots of arms up, and see if you can get a deflection or force a mistake from big men who aren't forced to make plays.
And then if they do get that pass off, make it difficult for their big men to make the pass out or finish: pic.twitter.com/Pw3IjnbHiY— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 19, 2017
Here's the problem, though: you give a good team like the Rockets enough chances to learn and beat this defense, and they'll start making the right reads. Clint Capela had three assists tonight (believe it or not, his career high), but more damaging, was a deserving plus 35 because of his ability to finish over that smaller help that was coming from the corner.
And in the end, if those players do make the right reads, then they're probably going to get an open 3-point look eventually, even if it's two passes away. The Rockets kind of figured it out. They got 12 threes in the fourth quarter and made eight of them. It's impossible to win games where you lose the fourth quarter by 26.
Was it preferable to last two games against Houston, where the Rockets just cooked the Jazz in isolation? Probably. The Jazz had a lead in the fourth quarter, something they couldn't say about the first two meetings. But the Rockets are just also a great team, a clear two or three levels above where the Jazz are right now.
2. The free-throw discrepancy
The Rockets had a 27-8 free-throw attempt advantage in tonight's game.
The average NBA analyst would probably look at that and say "Well, duh, the Rockets have James Harden and Chris Paul, two of the elite foul-drawers in the league. Meanwhile, no one on the Jazz has that kind of scoring profile, and the one who does, Donovan Mitchell, only played 21 minutes due to foul trouble."
And that's a good point! The Rockets will probably get more free throws than the Jazz on any given night because they're more talented and have very intelligent players who very purposefully send themselves to the line.
But the discrepancy shouldn't have been 27-8. Indeed, the Jazz attacked often enough and were fouled enough that they should have gone to the line more frequently. Meanwhile, they actually played much better defense against the Rockets' drives than the referees gave them credit for.
Ekpe Udoh, who fouled out, deserved maybe half of those fouls. I don't see where the foul is here, for example:
Unless I'm missing something, I don't think this should be a foul on Udoh: pic.twitter.com/4jZFqYg1Hr— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 19, 2017
Udoh, when asked about the free-throw discrepancy after the game, said, "No comment."
Meanwhile, the Jazz attacked on drives and didn't get the same respect. Burks attacks here, Capela has two hands on him and causes the miss. It's a foul.
Meanwhile, I do think this should be a foul on Capela, putting both hands on Burks as he drives, forcing the miss: pic.twitter.com/H78wJ2AsBa— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 19, 2017
This didn't cause the Jazz's loss tonight, obviously. They lost by 21 points. But if the Jazz play defense with their hands out and beat their man to the ball, they should be rewarded fairly.
3. Scoring inside
Without their two best interior players, the Jazz did a great job of scoring in the paint tonight, fourth quarter notwithstanding. The Jazz had 54 points through the first three quarters of the game, finishing with 58 in the paint. Even with that bad fourth quarter finish, it's the most points in the paint the Jazz have scored all season.
Why? Well, part of it was some lax defense the Rockets played. Joe Ingles, of all people, had nine layup attempts, three of them on plays like this where he just snuck into the paint without a defender, received a pass, and scored:
Joe Ingles had a few layups like this tonight, where he just sneaky-sneaked into the Rockets paint and scored pic.twitter.com/zhbg8s9box— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 19, 2017
But I also thought the Jazz did a nice job of attacking the switch. That's something that's been a focus of the Jazz's practices with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert out. With those two players, the Jazz get a lot of their offense through forcing the defense to collapse with hard rolls in the paint.
With Udoh and Jerebko playing center, it's just not much of a threat. So defenses frequently switch, forcing the Jazz's perimeter players to make a play. That's where Ingles, Rubio, or Burks can make a play like this:
But he also did a nice job attacking on the switch, something the Jazz have been putting emphasis on improving with Fav/Gobert out pic.twitter.com/2KxzXXL5ad— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) December 19, 2017
Getting to the rim is a lot better than settling for a difficult pull-up jumper in those situations, and through three quarters, the Jazz did that tonight. In the fourth, Houston switched less frequently, started playing more physically on the perimeter, and forced the Jazz to make tougher plays. They couldn't, but that doesn't mean the beginning of the game wasn't a good step forward.