1. Jazz with a total team victory despite bad circumstances
We’ll get to the bad circumstances later, but the performances of everyone else besides Rudy Gobert on the roster don’t deserve to be overshadowed by something that happened in the first three minutes of the game.
The Jazz played excellent defense tonight on James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela. Just terrific defense. After 11 games against the Rockets, the Jazz really did seem like they had every answer for what Houston was trying to do, and then they were baited into mistakes time and time again.
Let’s say Paul was running pick and roll.
The Jazz know Paul well enough to know that he rarely takes contested layups at this stage of his career. They think, so long as there’s a big man nearby, that Paul is going to either try to shoot a midrange jumper, try to lob it to Capela, or kick it outside.
So look at where Derrick Favors jumps: it’s actually first to stop the lob, rather than the layup. Royce O’Neale is also jumping in, and Dante Exum is recovering to Capela, further dissuading the pass. But the Jazz know that counter, too: Paul is going to try to kick it outside. Look at O’Neale dig, then recover to get the steal. It’s a thing of beauty.
How about Harden isolation? Well, the biggest threat there is the step-back three. So Mitchell plays up into him, but make sure not to foul. Harden becomes a driver. Then, Jae Crowder swipes to try to make Harden pick the ball up early, which means the Favors' work is much easier in preventing the layup. That means Ricky Rubio has to come over to stop the lob from Capela. Ingles has to play two-on-one on the outside, but because it’s a long pass, he doesn’t have to commit either way. He stays just outside of Harden’s view before running to intercept the pass, one of Harden’s seven turnovers.
Throughout, Favors and Udoh were terrific at defending without fouling against the hardest team in the NBA to do that. They rotated quickly, stayed completely vertical, and made life hard for the Rockets. Meanwhile, the guards did their job too, helping the bigs as they helped. It was the best defensive performance of the season, and they limited the Rockets to only a 78 offensive rating during the first three quarters, when their starters were on the floor.
2. Rudy Gobert’s ejection
The game was marred by Rudy Gobert’s ejection, just 2:47 into the first quarter. Referee Courtney Kirkland called a foul on Gobert on the opening tip, despite the fact that the Rockets won possession anyway. It was the first foul called on the opening tip this season, and only one such foul was called in 1230 NBA games last year. Then, Leon Wood called Gobert for an offensive foul as Harden flopped to earn the whistle. Gobert hit away some items that were on the scorers table, and Kirkland tossed him.
I do not think that it was a coincidence that this came after Gobert’s $15K fine for criticizing officials in Miami. For example, here’s a quote in 2015 from NBA.com, which came from “one veteran official” after Mike Budenholzer bumped official Ben Taylor.
“They’re backing their fraternity, we’re backing ours,” the official told NBA.com. “Our guys are [ticked] off. But we’re going to do our jobs.”
Some officials see the officiating ranks as a “fraternity.” If you attack one, you attack them all. And from the tip, Kirkland seemingly wanted to make that clear by making the consequences known to Gobert.
This is not okay. I understand that the officials are human, but they can’t be making decisions that are influenced by what’s happened before the game. It is a terrible look for the league, and serves to validate the actually inaccurate thoughts that casual NBA fans have about NBA officiating.
Kirkland has a history of making situations worse than they need to be. 15 years ago, there was the confrontation between him and Jerry Sloan that ended in a 7-game suspension for Sloan, one in which Sloan was aggravated by something Kirkland told him. Last season, Kirkland got in a confrontation with Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, the NBA ruled that Kirkland “moved toward Livingston and shared responsibility for the contact that occurred" between the two.
That all being said, I do think Gobert has to share in the blame here: winding up and knocking stuff off the table onto the court like that was always going to result in bad consequences. It didn’t need to be an ejection, in my opinion, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise.
“I need to be smarter,” Gobert said. “It didn’t cost the team tonight, but losing me in the first quarter is not the smartest thing to do.”
Smarter, cooler actions from both sides could have resulted in keeping the NBA’s stars on the floor in an important, nationally-televised game.
3. Jazz take advantage of Houston’s switching
As we wrote about this summer, the Jazz’s coaching staff spent a ton of time over the offseason analyzing switching defenses, and figuring out how to attack them in various ways. And once again, the Jazz came out and simply executed that game plan against the Rockets to tremendous success.
Look at this play: it looks like it’s for Mitchell, then Ingles on the pop-out. But really, the idea is to force the switch on Rubio. As soon as that happens, Favors sprints to the rim, knowing he can beat Harden there for the easy pass.
Normally, the Rockets would have help on Favors to prevent the pass, but the defense is so focused on the other threats that no help comes.
All of the switching just puts a ton of pressure on the defense at the end. This three is created by Favors getting position on Harden, so P.J. Tucker has to help down low. That leaves Rubio open, but he passes up the first 3-point look to drive. Then, because Clint Capela prefers to protect the rim, he takes a step down to consider doing so, but in the process leaves Crowder open for a better three.
The ball movement for the Jazz in the last two games has been excellent, and they’re truly playing as a unit to get good shots for each other. The Rockets' defense wasn’t good tonight (nor has it been this season), but the Jazz took full advantage.