The Triple Team: Jazz’s unusual defensive strategy against James Harden and Rockets doesn’t work this time, while the offense can’t get going either

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, center, walks off the court after his team's loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Houston. Houston won the game, 122-90. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 122-90 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz force James Harden right, but the rotations aren’t well done

The Jazz have a math problem created entirely by James Harden’s unique characteristics. Here’s the problem: Harden shot 39% on stepback threes over the course of the season. That’s a 117 offensive rating. If the Rockets get 117 points per 100 possessions, they will win the majority of those games, certainly enough to get four out of seven in a series.

So the Jazz used the Milwaukee Bucks’ strategy: they stay on Harden’s left hip, preventing him from gathering the ball and taking the stepback three. Doing so just allows Harden to drive to the rim with his right, free and clear. This is legitimately a novel concept: no one in the history of the NBA has had a stepback three so good that teams would rather give up the drive than the shot. But for the Bucks, it worked in a March win: Harden scored only 23 points, the Rockets scored only 94 total, and it was their only loss in two months by more than two points.

To prevent him from getting layups, Rudy Gobert pre-rotates over to Harden. At that point, you need someone to stop Clint Capela from getting lobs. So then the defense rotates, and that leaves someone open from three in the corner, unless someone rotates to there. But forcing the extra passes gives the offense a chance to turn it over and to find the ball in someone else’s hands. The idea here is to make Harden a passer, where he can be a little-turnover prone at times. In fact, he’s not great at passing with his right hand at all, so forcing him to do so is paramount.

It’s on the last paragraph of things that the Jazz were wildly inconsistent at. Take this play for example:

Rubio does his job well early, and Gobert does his job just fine. But the Jazz make two mistakes: first, Rubio doesn’t stay attached to Harden’s left hip, so he’s able to transfer the ball to his left hand for the lob. Secondly, Favors stays with P.J. Tucker, rather than rotating off of the least dangerous player in the midrange to prevent the lob (admittedly, this is a tough rotation).

This time, Thabo Sefolosha makes the rotation to prevent the lob pass. But again, Ingles can’t stay connected, and Harden’s able to get the ball in both hands and find the open shooter.

Also note Harden’s little left hand shove to get himself space. To be honest, for this to work, the Jazz have to start either flopping on that shove or staying connected anyway.

Here’s when it went well: Ingles and Favors do a good job of stopping the Capela option, while still being somewhat in the passing lane for the kickout to the weak side, and Harden is forced to take a floater over Gobert.

Can the Jazz do this as effectively as Milwaukee? Eric Bledsoe is a better perimeter defender than Rubio or Royce O’Neale, and they obviously have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has arms for days to disrupt passing lanes more effectively than the Jazz’s players. But Gobert should be better at dissuading paint passes and floaters than Brook Lopez is. Truthfully, I think they can do it, but I’m a relentless optimist.

And it sounds like the Jazz will stay with the strategy throughout the series. Here’s what Ricky Rubio said, when I asked him about it:

“It’s a gameplan that’s not just for one game, it’s the whole series. We have to do it over and over again. We have to make it tough for one of the best players in the league. We have to get to know the gameplan better.

“As the series goes on, we’re going to get better, we’re going to make adjustments. We have one of the best, if not the best coach at making adjustments,” Rubio continued. “It took us a while, and then I think in the second half we did a better job, and in Game 2, I think we’re going to do a better job. James Harden got 29; that’s good, but he took 26 shots. That’s what we want. He didn’t get to the free-throw line. That’s the gameplan.”

With this strategy, the Jazz are trying to dictate the terms of the series, rather than just watching Harden beat them. It didn’t work tonight, but like Rubio, I think they’ll execute it better in Game 2.

2. Jazz offense can’t get going

I would argue that the Jazz’s offense was more discouraging than their defense in Game 1, though. The Rockets had an 123 offensive rating, which is really good, don’t get me wrong, but the 90 offensive rating that the Jazz had was more out of line with the two teams’ season averages.

The first issue: Donovan Mitchell didn’t get going, scoring only 19 point on 18 shots, adding five turnovers and exactly zero assists. I thought he too often took the extra beat, allowing the Rockets’ defense to get set to stop him:

There’s no reason Mitchell couldn’t have attacked directly after catching the ball in that play, but he waited instead.

Also worrying was Joe Ingles’ complete non-factor status. In last year’s Game 2 win, Ingles had 27 and was a huge factor in the Jazz finally getting one on the Rockets, but tonight he only had three points and four shots. Houston’s switching is a huge problem for him, because he’s not quick enough to beat Capela in isolation situations.

Honestly, you do also just have to give them credit for solid defensive execution. This is a great example: Mitchell gets the step on Austin Rivers, but Harden’s stunt towards him makes him pick up the ball early, Rivers stays attached the whole time, and Capela makes the shot extremely difficult. Meanwhile, there aren’t any obvious passing opportunities, at least not while he’s driving.

The Jazz can get more, but the Rockets knew exactly where to help from and where not to in Game 1. Utah will make more shots in Game 2 — looking at you, Jae Crowder and Thabo Sefolosha, who went a combined 2-15 — but overall, the offensive picture isn’t looking rosy.

3. Losing the possession battle

That’s why it’s so imperative that the Jazz have to win the possession battle against the Rockets in this series. And they have the opportunity to: the Rockets were the third-worst defensive rebounding team in the league this year, and the upshot of the Milwaukee strategy is that it should force turnovers.

Unfortunately, the Jazz lost both battles tonight. They were outrebounded on the offensive glass by an 8-7 margin, and they gave up 19 turnovers to Houston’s 12. All in all, the Rockets took 95 shots compared to the Jazz’s 77. Some of that was due to the Jazz taking more free throws than the Rockets, but, well, not most of it.

But you can’t just have possessions like this. I understand that Gobert, your best defensive rebounder, is contesting the shot on the perimeter. That means someone has to get a body on Capela and prevent him from getting the ball.

The Rockets also beat the Jazz in getting loose balls on a count of 6-5. Again, that’s not much, but it’s a battle that the Jazz can’t be losing.

Houston has a 5-8 record when teams get 20 second-chance points or more on them, tonight, the Jazz only got 10. Obviously, tonight, it wouldn’t have been enough either way. But to score enough, Utah will need to get more than one bite of the cherry.