Houston • Houston guard Chris Paul skated into the lane, stopped and popped a jump shot over Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
Hmmm. Where have we seen this before?
The Jazz succeeded in breaking up the Los Angeles Clippers with their Game 7 victory in a first-round playoff series last year, only to face Paul in the Western Conference semifinals this spring. He’s merely a sidekick of James Harden in Houston’s backcourt, illustrating the Rockets’ volume of talent.
Joe Johnson is another reminder of the Jazz’s 2017 playoff breakthrough. One of the Jazz’s stars in that memorable series vs. the Clippers, he’s now deep on Houston’s bench as his career winds down. So the Jazz won’t be haunted by their February trade that brought Jae Crowder to Utah and eventually led to Johnson’s signing with Houston.
Paul, though, is back to bother them in another playoff series. He posted 14 points and five assists in the first half of Sunday’s Game 1 as the Rockets took a 25-point lead in a 110-96 victory.
And that’s without Paul’s being asked to do everything offensively, as in Los Angeles — especially after Blake Griffin was injured in the first half of Game 3 against the Jazz. Paul was by far the biggest reason the Clippers forced a Game 7, although he finally wore down with 6-of-19 shooting and 13 points in a 104-91 loss in Los Angeles as the Jazz advanced.
Paul had played brilliantly in two victories in Salt Lake City, scoring 34 points in Game 3 and 29 in Game 6. But when the Clippers lost Game 7, the dismantling of their team became inevitable. Rather than lose Paul in free agency, the Clippers arranged a trade with Houston that gave them some value in return, yet marked the end of an era in Los Angeles (Griffin would be traded to Detroit in January).
Paul now performs for a team that’s built around Harden and went 65-17 in the regular season. He professes to like the freedom of not always having to handle the ball and carry the offensive load. Asked about playing with Harden, Paul said, “Has it been fun? Absolutely.”
And he knows something about playing against the Jazz. He thrived against them in the playoffs last spring, when he learned how to deal with Rudy Gobert’s presence in the paint. “We just try to push the tempo, mix it up, try to get [3-pointers], get out in transition,” he said, explaining how the Rockets scored 64 points in Sunday’s first half. “Gobert sort of sits back and they try to funnel you to him, so just try to mix it up with floaters, lobs, midrange shots. … We just try to score, basically.”
Yeah, that seems to work.
Every shot Paul made Sunday evoked images of that Jazz-Clippers series, which the Jazz wouldn’t have won without Johnson. The veteran forward will have a place in Jazz history, having been instrumental in the franchise’s first series victory in seven years. He delivered a Game 1 win with 21 points and a floating, buzzer-beating shot and then took over the fourth quarter of Game 4, finishing with 28 points on a night when Gordon Hayward went home at halftime due to illness.
Yet if he played like the Joe Johnson of old in that series, he just looked old this season. Johnson will turn 37 in June. In February, the Jazz sent him to Sacramento and Rodney Hood to Cleveland, acquiring Crowder in a three-team trade. Sacramento waived Johnson, enabling him to sign with Houston.
Johnson is reunited with Mike D’Antoni, his coach long ago in Phoenix. “We have a lot of history together,” D’Antoni said, describing Johnson as “always somebody I trust in.”
He’s just not needed. Due partly to other players’ injuries, Johnson played a significant role right after joining the Rockets. He scored seven points in a Feb. 26 win over the Jazz. In five games of a first-round series vs. Minnesota, though, Johnson played a total of only 25 minutes, scoring four points.
The Rockets are even deeper now, with forward Luc Mbah a Moute having returned from injury. Johnson didn’t appear in Game 1. So there will be no story line in this series about Johnson hurting his old team. Fans can just enjoy the memories of what he did for the Jazz last spring, when Johnson helped them beat Paul’s Clippers.