Just one game into this Western Conference first-round series and Utah coach Quin Snyder has opened himself up to criticism for the defensive strategy the Jazz employed on Sunday in Game 1 against arguably the most formidable scorer in the NBA: Rockets guard James Harden.
Utah, which closed the season ranked second to Milwaukee in defensive efficiency at 105.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, opted for an extreme shading of the left-handed Harden in an attempt to force him to his off hand. How that gambit worked, ignoring the bizarre optics of Harden often gaining unfettered access to the lane with Jazz guard Ricky Rubio trailing, is up for interpretation as Utah and Houston prepare for Game 2 on Wednesday back at the Toyota Center.
Harden needed 26 shot attempts to record a game-high 29 points and attempted only three free throws. Harden, who finished 4 for 10 on 3-pointers, paced the league in 3s and free throws, so from a Jazz perspective, their opting not to defend Harden traditionally yielded favorable results, even though the Rockets rolled to a 122-90 victory while Harden flirted with a triple-double.
"It's a game plan that's not just for one game," Rubio said. "We've got a whole series and we've got to do it over and over again. We've got to make it tough for one of the best players right now in the league, and he's a great scorer.
"We have to get to know the game plan better. I think as the series goes on, we're going to get better. We're going to make adjustments, we're going to do this and that. We have one of the best if not the best coach (at) making adjustments."
Harden recorded 10 assists and would have surely recorded more had his teammates not repeatedly missed open 3-pointers off his pinpoint -- and occasionally brilliant -- passing. With defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert protecting the rim, the Jazz prevented Harden from feasting on layups and forced him into difficult floaters instead. Harden adjusted quickly with passes out of penetration, and the Rockets seized control early and weathered a Utah run in the third quarter.
Of equal concern for the Jazz was Houston earning a stalemate on the glass. Utah closed the season ranked third in rebounding rate while the Rockets scuffled throughout the year on the boards, particularly securing defensive rebounds. Yet, Houston posted a 42-41 edge on the glass.
What Utah does defensively with Harden will continue to shape the series, but the Jazz also need to reestablish their advantage on the backboards to reclaim any positive momentum.
"If you give up a dunk it feels a certain way. If you give up a 3 it can feel a certain way, but you're going to give something up," Snyder said. "We had some breakdowns in the halfcourt, no question. Some of that is going to happen, even when you're good because of their ability to make plays. But I thought really in the first half and some in the second, too, our inability to secure a rebound or a loose ball when we did get a stop (proved detrimental)."
The Rockets weren't reveling in their success in the opener. After claiming Game 1 of their West semifinal series with Utah last season, the Rockets dropped Game 2 at home. That bit of history will serve as a driving force as Houston strives for a 2-0 series advantage.
"It's only one game," Harden said. "They're going to make adjustments, we have to make adjustments and play that much harder and smarter. We'll let it sink in and get ready to go."
--Field Level Media
Jazz make adjustments ahead of Game 2 vs. Rockets