And there it was on Sunday night at Toyota Center … a Game of Groans redux.
The Jazz and the Rockets in the opener of their playoff series was a veritable deja vu-ian experience: The Jazz carrying on their upstart cause of trying to show Houston, and the rest of the world, just how good they really are, and the Rockets, ever disrespected, at least in their own minds, attempting to toss aside the Jazz as a means of getting on to more serious business against the Warriors in the next round.
There really is an echo in here, right?
Same teams, same building, same atmosphere, same coaches, same attitudes, same goals, same stars, same results.
The final numbers on the board: Rockets 122, Jazz 90.
The Jazz dropped Game 1 a year ago to the Rockets, losing by 14 points, falling behind by a mile early and then clawing back to make it marginally more competitive.
This time, they fell behind early by double-digits, trailed by 15 at the half, fought back, and then collapsed. Plainly spoken, they got their tails handed to them.
“We didn’t play well,” Quin Snyder said, afterward. “There are a lot of things we have to do better.”
Donovan Mitchell got 21 points and five assists in the first game against Houston last postseason. On Sunday night, he wanted to do what everybody knew he had to do to give the Jazz a chance — score, score, score. He could not, at least not enough, finishing with 19 points.
Rudy Gobert, who previously went for 11 and nine, alongside Derrick Favors, tried to roll to the rim, as the two Jazz bigs have done for most of the 2018-19 season. Gobert scored 22 points, with 12 boards here, Favors got 13 and six.
There was far too little help from others.
As an accomplished defensive team, Houston committed resources to slowing the big men’s movement toward the basket, sacrificing coverage elsewhere, but no other Jazz players could come through. Any time the Jazz struggle to collect assists, they lose. Sunday night, they got 17, against 18 turnovers, which means they were sloppy, and the ball wasn’t popping properly.
A year ago in Game 1, the Jazz surrendered 10 more bombs to the Rockets than they made themselves. This time, the Jazz hit just seven deep shots to the Rockets’ 15. More disturbingly for the Jazz, Houston absolutely killed them in the paint, led by Clint Capela’s 16 points. Many other Rockets got on top of the basket, too. Rarely have the Jazz been owned like that down low.
“[Rudy] can’t be in all places,” Snyder said. “We had some breakdowns in the half-court.”
The Jazz’s defensive game plan didn’t work. They allowed James Harden and Chris Paul to drive and dish — and score. In last year’s opener, the Rockets received 58 points from Harden (41) and Paul (17). On Sunday night, those two combined for 43, with Harden getting 29 of those.
That effort was backed by Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Danuel House, Kenneth Faried, et al. All told, the Rockets shot 50 percent, the Jazz just 39.
What does it all mean?
Not sure that the premature comparison means anything definitive at this juncture, other than the Jazz have a steep climb ahead, just as they did in 2018. But everybody already knew that.
If they want to change the ultimate result in this series, they will have to stiffen their defense, in the paint and on the perimeter, limit their turnovers, and avoid scoring droughts that leave them thrashing around to catch up. The Jazz typically are a stellar defensive team, an averag offensive one. Sunday night, they played beneath themselves at both ends.
In this series, they’ll have to play above themselves.
They cannot give up 62 points in the paint. They cannot play carelessly. They’ll have to carve open shots out of Houston’s resistance and when the carving is done, make those shots at a steady clip.
Same as it’s always been against these guys.