KRAGTHORPE: Cold shooting dooms Utah
If he coached baseball, Jerry Sloan would probably walk away from a 1-0 loss believing his team's biggest problem was allowing one run.
Yet not even the Jazz coach who gives up every point grudgingly could blame this defeat on defensive lapses. By basketball standards, the Jazz were practically shut out in the second half of Saturday night's 84-75 loss to Houston at the Toyota Center.
Actually, that score is deceiving. It was 80-66 for the Rockets with two minutes remaining, at which time the Jazz had scored 24 points in the second half.
That simply will not get it done in the NBA, regardless of what anybody says about the grind-it-out nature of playoff basketball, and Sloan knows it. The Jazz scored 11 points in the third quarter, when this game was there for the taking. They scored 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, when they still had one shot - a three-point attempt from the right wing that Gordan Giricek studied, thought about some more, and finally clanked off the rim - to regain the lead.
Here's how bad it became: Jazz guard Deron Williams was on the verge of a triple-double, recording his ninth assist with 9:45 to play. He stayed stuck on nine assists (and nine rebounds) the rest
of the night, because nothing was working and nobody helped him by making a shot.
So what the heck happened?
"We missed shots," Sloan said, delivering the most thorough, complex explanation he could. "We had good looks at the basket. We just missed shots."
Lots of shots, lots of misses. They all added up to one big question for Utahns to spend a couple of days pondering: Was this the best opportunity the Jazz will have to win a road game in this series?
One theory suggests that if All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur could shoot a combined 6-for-31 and the Jazz still could have a chance, that should be encouraging in its own, twisted way.
The other logic is the Rockets offered to give away Game 1, but the Jazz just would not or could not take it.
"We were so discombobulated and so scattered," said Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy. "They had us all over the place. I didn't recognize what we were doing."
The Rockets were glad to be trailing only 42-33 at halftime. At that point, anybody would have liked the Jazz's chances.
This playoff appearance was four seasons in the making. It was almost worth the wait. In many ways, the Jazz looked like they belonged in postseason play. They rebounded well, defended decently and worked their offense for good shots in the first half.
At other times, they were overwhelmed. They could not stop Tracy McGrady in the second half, Boozer and Okur obviously were affected by the presence of 7-foot-6 Yao Ming and everything crumbled for the Jazz at the game's critical stages.
Any suggestion that this was the Jazz's night was torn to shreds by two plays in the second half.
The first came late in the third quarter, when Okur stole the ball and fed Derek Fisher, who led what amounted to a three-on-none fast break.
Somehow, Fisher missed the layup. Somehow, Okur missed the follow shot.
Eventually, Rafer Alston grabbed the rebound and fired an 80-foot pass to Yao for a dunk, giving the Rockets the lead for good, 54-53.
"One thing led to another," Sloan said, citing the lasting effect of that play, as Houston scored the last 10 points of the third quarter.
"Let's face it: We got rewarded for bad play on that one," Van Gundy said. "Yao didn't run back. . . . Sometimes, it is luck."
Like the time in the fourth quarter when Houston guard Luther Head stumbled, fumbled and bumbled with Giricek chasing him into the right corner, yet managed to launch a three-pointer as the shot clock expired - and hit it for a 71-63 lead.
The Jazz were done, in terms of Game 1, anyway. "We know that team is never going to die," McGrady said.
He's right. The Jazz will come back and make a decent series of it. But they would be a lot better off if they just could have scored some points Saturday.