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The Triple Team: Everyone struggles against the Rockets, while James Harden has a ‘near-Kirilenko’ on the other end

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) lays the ball up as Houston Rockets' PJ Tucker (17) and Nene Hilario (42) defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 125-98 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Nobody plays well against Rockets, which will lose you games

It’s hard to come up with a player who played well against the Rockets.

Maybe Donovan Mitchell? I mean, he scored 26 points and had nine assists, that’s pretty good! But he took 24 shots to get there, added five turnovers, and truth be told, the bulk of his impact came as he fought valiantly to bring the Jazz back in a game they were realistically already out of.

It seemed like Mitchell was going a little too fast at the beginning. Like, take this play here:

The Jazz cleverly get into a Mitchell/Rudy Gobert handoff play, and Faried comes over to stop Mitchell. In response, Mitchell jumps in the air. If he was able to stay on the ground and wait a beat, he had Gobert’s pointing for the lob, or Crowder beating Tucker backdoor. But because Crowder makes that cut, he doesn’t even have the emergency exit option, and just throws the ball away.

(He did have one of the best assists I’ve ever seen here, though.)

Maybe Derrick Favors? He had five blocks, after all! But he also only scored four points and had three rebounds, and just didn’t see the court that much, only 16 minutes. He struggled to find a way to make an impact offensively.

Maybe Royce O’Neale? He had 10 points and six rebounds, but really struggled in containing Harden while he was in the game, and also shot 44 percent... not bad, but probably not enough to say he played well.

Everyone else I think we can be pretty conclusive about. Rudy Gobert was weirdly unimpactful, late in rotations, not getting his hands up, all sorts of weird stuff. Rubio didn’t make a shot. Ingles went 4-12 and was a -21. Crowder shot 4-13, adding three turnovers. Etc.

So, why? I think playing last night and three-of-four hurt everyone, though the Rockets were also on the back-to-back. We could also be seeing the effects of playing a short rotation as injuries have hit the team. For Rubio, trade speculation may be impacting his play. But regardless, the Jazz could have used one player having a good shooting night, for example.

2. James Harden’s near 5x5

James Harden scored 43 points on 22 shots, hit all 15 of his free-throws, added 12 rebounds, five assists, six steals, and four blocks. As Rockets beat writer Jonathan Feigen pointed out, Harden finished just one block short of a Kirilenko — a 5x5.

We talk about Harden’s step-back threes and ability to draw fouls, and it’s true: he’s probably the best NBA player at all time in both categories. Do you realize he’s averaging 36 points per game this season? 36 points per game! Look, you could take away every single free-throw he gets and he’d still average 26 points per game. He’s really, really good.

But kind of an underrated part of his rise has been an ability to improve at the other stuff. Harden’s defense used to be fairly ridiculed throughout the league for just how lazy it could really be. But he’s turned himself into a decent enough man-on-man and help defender, and it was a substantial part of the Rockets' rise last year on that end of the floor.

I get that this is Georges Niang. But that he’s able to have the strength to take the bigger Niang’s bump and still make the block is a really nice play.

And it’s really intelligent here to make the dig and prevent the dump-off pass here:

Look, I hate watching him play. It was better when he was running more pick and roll, and he was forced to pass and make plays, but now that it’s nearly all isolations, I’d rather watch you — yes, you, our readers — play pickup basketball. But there’s no denying his greatness at this point, and he’s absolutely the favorite for MVP at this point of the season.

He also took this photo during the game, which was goofy enough to bring to your attention.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) mugs for the camera before leaving the court during the final minutes of the team's NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

3. Playing in the bonus

With 10:13 left to go in the second quarter, the Rockets fouled the Jazz three times in one possession, putting the Jazz in the bonus for the rest of the quarter. Ah ha, you may have thought, this is the Jazz’s opportunity to finally get the offense going, through getting to the line a bunch of times!

That didn’t happen: they made just five more free throws in the rest of the quarter. I wondered if some of that was because the Jazz started looking for the whistle rather than looking to play basketball and score points the normal way, but the players seemed to dismiss that idea when I asked them about it.

Still, you’d be surprised at how small of an advantage the bonus is. Nylon Calculus did a study in 2016 that showed that the extra efficiency for playing in the penalty is just 2.3 points per 100 possessions, or less than 0.6 points per average NBA quarter. Given that the Jazz were in the penalty for about 10 of the 12 minutes, you’d only expect them to gain an additional half a point, certainly not something to get super excited about.

In the end, I wonder if referees are less likely to call fouls in that penalty, knowing that doing so will send the team to the line: every non-shooting call means more, and so anything on the fringe they might choose to ignore for the sake of the pace of play. It’s hard to argue that’s what the referees were thinking tonight, though, with 73 combined FTs in the game, even the blowout lasted two hours, 22 minutes.

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