2018 NBA playoffs
The Jazz are a team designed to beat the Rockets
by Sam Beech
Rick Egan - The Salt Lake Tribune
The Utah Jazz have the horses to beat the 65-win Houston Rockets. With a unique rim protector, a dynamic rookie, and a great defensive strategy, Utah has the ability to prevent a highly anticipated Rockets-Warriors Western Conference Finals.
One thing we know about the Rockets is that they love the three-ball. Traditionally, the primary option for a Mike D’Antoni-coached system is taking a quick three-pointer early in the shot clock, if available. The Rockets are the first team in history to shoot more three-pointers than two-pointers during the course of a regular season, with a three-point attempt rate of 50.2% this season.Houston has the personnel to be efficient with this unorthodox strategy, with capable sharpshooters up and down the roster.
When the quick three-point shot is not available, the Rockets like to try and get an easy bucket at the rim. The Rockets try to do this by isolating James Harden, and giving him the option to either drive and/or dump to Clint Capela out of a pick-and-roll. The Rockets also have effectively used Chris Paul to create similar offense with his ability to play in isolation. If Houston fails to get that easy look near the rim, they often resort to shooting a three later in the shot clock.
Defensively, the Rockets have been solid as well. Capela has emerged as a true disruptor near the basket. Paul has also added an edge to a team that clearly lacked ferocity on the defensive end in years past. While Houston will never hang its hat on its defense, it is at least respectable on that side of the ball.
As hard as it is to neutralize Houston, Utah may have a squad that is able to create favorable mismatches against the Rockets.
The main reason is that Utah has a one-man wrecking crew in the paint – Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert. Gobert is able to protect the rim like no other in the league. He averages an impressive 2.3 blocks per game, but even that figure does not illustrate how impactful he is.
Because of Gobert’s length and ability to defend the rim, opposing offenses struggle to convert on shots near or at the rim. Opponents only make 54.5% of layups attempted against Utah, which is near the top of the league.
Gobert’s presence also allows the rest of the Utah defense is able to player further out on the perimeter, and thus prevent teams from getting clean looks from deep. Utah only allows opponents to shoot 26.0 three-pointers a game, third fewest in the league.
This strategy forces opposing team to frequently settle for midrange jumpers—something the Rockets almost never do. Only 8.11% of Houston’s field goal attempts this year came from 8-16 feet out, which is last in the NBA by a good margin. While James Harden and Chris Paul can convert in the midrange, it is a style of play that Houston is not accustomed to.
The Jazz also have a dynamic guard that can give Houston all kinds of trouble defensively. Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has made a living using his athleticism to penetrate the lane, and make things happen. He has a unique ability to finish at the rim over bigger defenders. Perimeter defenders have to play him honestly though, as he can punish you from deep; he made the most three-pointers ever for a rookie this season, tallying 187.
Mitchell’s dynamic style opens up opportunities for Utah’s underrated supporting cast to contribute. Joe Ingles particularly has been a beneficiary of Mitchell’s ability to attack the lane. He has been getting clean looks from three all season long from the attention Mitchell’s driving ability gets; 71.2% of Ingles' shot attempts have been uncontested, good for 10th most among all players in the NBA. As a result of such good looks Ingles converted on 44.7% of three-point attempts in the regular season, which was second in the NBA.
The threat of Mitchell also creates chaos in the lane for opposing defenses, resulting in easy bucket opportunities for Gobert and other Utah bigs. About 6.5% of Utah’s total shot attempts came in the form of dunks in the regular season, which ranked third in the league. While Capela is a capable defensive big man for Houston, he likely will have his hands full with Utah’s inside-outside versatility.
Houston will be tough for any team to knock out this year, but Utah is the type of team designed to do it. It all starts with Gobert’s ability to protect the rim. If he can effectively disrupt Harden and Capela’s ability to finish at the rim, the shooters will be able to stay home and force Houston into more of a midrange game. Utah’s physical, stingy second-ranked defense could frustrate the Rockets and throw them out of rhythm.
On offense, if Mitchell can get by his defender and challenge Capela, this will create opportunities for Ingles and their other role players to get good looks from the outside. If Utah can convert on these, Houston could be in real trouble.
*Statistical support from Basketball Reference and NBA Miner was used in this article.