Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 100-89 win over the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune writer Andy Larsen.
1. Donovan Mitchell’s brilliant evening
After three games in which Donovan Mitchell pressed on the offensive end, playing inefficiently, he turned it around in a big way against the Houston Rockets with a brilliant 38-point, 7-assist performance that showed off the best of his skillset.
Remember how much the Jazz were stifled by the switching defense of Houston in the playoffs? Tonight, Donovan Mitchell took advantage repeatedly by getting mismatches he wanted and then simply driving past the perimeter defender. From there, he either finished around the help that came, or made the right pass to the open man.
What did he do better on this night than he did in the five-game playoff series? Well, he focused on getting his defender off-balance, by attacking quickly and using quick misdirection moves. This play is a good example: he gets Clint Capela off balance by using a hesitation, then just drives straight past him. From there, he avoids a wildly jumping Carmelo Anthony and finishes.
In the fourth quarter, the Rockets also started to do a little bit more to stop Mitchell. They used two players to keep him contained on the perimeter, or helped off of Ricky Rubio or Royce O’Neale’s man to help in the paint. And after a quick initial adjustment period, Mitchell figured it out and made some good passes. This one was incredible: Mitchell throws this lob incredibly high but very on target to find Rudy Gobert under the basket for the alley-oop.
It was not only the best game of Mitchell’s sophomore season so far, but one of the best games of his young career. He led the Jazz’s offense to a win.
2. The Rockets have added weaknesses
While we’re throwing back to the playoffs, remember how frequently the Jazz exploited Carmelo Anthony’s defense in the first round series against OKC? Well, the Rockets have him now, and... I think he’s lost another step defensively.
He actually had a pretty good game on the offensive end, scoring 22 points on 17 shots. He really helped them score, too, when they needed it off the bench. But once again, the Jazz went at Anthony in so many different ways, and with so much success. On this play, Anthony switches onto Mitchell (a little bit too easily, in my opinion), and then the Jazz just wait, set up their spacing, and know that Mitchell will be able to blow by the old man. Melo’s hands aren’t up, and his defensive stance is essentially begging him to blow by him with his dominant right hand.
Yes, the Jazz have learned how to attack switches with more variety than last year. But against Anthony, they don’t need it: they can just line it up and get a layup or dunk.
The other weakness: Michael Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams can be a good defensive guard, and you understand why Houston signed him: he can be a switchy 6-foot-6 defender. But he is a horrendous shooter: he’s only 25 percent from his career from deep, and 35 percent between three feet and the 3-point line.
So when James Harden started to find offensive success in the third quarter (he finished with 29 points in 32 minutes before leaving the game with an injury with 5 minutes left), the Jazz started to do something drastic: they just left Carter-Williams alone to double Harden, even when Harden was 30 feet away from the basket.
Harden makes the right play, as he usually does, but MCW turns down not one, but two open threes to get the shot clock violation. They did this repeatedly, with either Rubio coming over or the Jazz rotating to leave Carter-Williams open. He never made them pay. You so rarely see double teaming this aggressive in the modern NBA, but it made sense because of Carter-Williams' poor game. It’s frankly astonishing he was once Rookie of the Year.
Anthony played 39 minutes Wednesday night, while Carter-Williams played 20. Now, if the Rockets have Chris Paul or James Ennis, both of whom were out against the Jazz due to suspension or injury, those players play less: Carter-Williams only played two minutes against the Lakers when the Rockets were at full-strength, though Anthony played 30. But one of the Jazz’s biggest roadblocks got worse this offseason with the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and either would have made Utah’s job much harder.
3. The struggles of Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio had another bad offensive game against the Rockets: he shot just 1-8 from the field, and added six turnovers. Yikes.
The shooting is a problem in a couple ways. Right now, teams can leave Rubio open to bring help to Mitchell or Ingles without the risk of it hurting them. That’s bad. But quite frankly, the loss of Rubio as a secondary scorer is a big deal too: Rubio’s scoring turned bad Jazz offensive games into good ones frequently last season, culminating in a 26-point triple-double in last year’s playoffs.
Meanwhile, tonight’s turnovers were just as problematic. You can see what he’s thinking on plays like this, but Favors was ready to box out P.J. Tucker for the rebound here, not sealing his man ready to receive the pass.
Rubio did a tremendous job on the defensive end of the floor tonight, Quin Snyder even mentioned it in the postgame presser. And he did make some really nice plays on the offensive end to find teammates cutting to the rim for layups. Even though he’s shooting poorly right now, the half-court offense does seem to run better with him on the floor — so long as the other team isn’t in the “completely leave Rubio wide open” defense yet.
It’s funny: last year, the reason Rubio struggled early in the season, he said, was because he had missed the chance to work with the team during OTAs before training camp due to his international obligations playing for Spain. He was still getting to know his new teammates and the new style of play Snyder wanted him to play with. But in an interview last week, Rubio noted that this year was his first summer not playing international basketball in a while, and so he felt that maybe he’d lost his shooting rhythm a little bit. Playing and not playing during the summer: both bad in different ways.
And yet, Rubio does have a track record of starting his seasons slowly and then figuring it out during the course of the year. I’m not that worried about Rubio long-term yet. In the mean time, though, Snyder might need to be quick with the trigger to put Dante Exum or Grayson Allen in the game if his presence is hurting, not helping, his teammates.