Houston • Remember Alec Burks?
He’s had an up and down season, to be sure. He’s played on three teams this year, after the Jazz traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyle Korver. Then the Cavs used him as salary ballast in a deal that earned them a first round pick, he was sent to the Sacramento Kings.
While on the Kings roster, Burks didn’t play in more games than he did, as a Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision. When he did play, it was frequently in garbage time. In most games, Burks’ limitations on defense and in operating an offense outweigh his strengths of being able to attack and score in isolation, so he sits on the bench. That’s where he frequently found himself in a Jazz uniform, too.
But in last year’s Jazz/Rockets series, Burks played a huge role: he scored 17 in the Jazz’s Game 2 win, and even scored 22 points in 32 minutes for the Jazz in Game 6. That was because that one skill, that ability to take advantage of a matchup and score, was what the Jazz’s offense needed.
Now, it’s only Donovan Mitchell who can do that for Utah. All of the other ballhandlers — Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale, Raul Neto, even Grayson Allen — need a space advantage in order to score that are rarely afforded by switching defenses; they don’t have the footspeed to get separation when matched up with a bigger “mismatch” unless they already have a step. A screen normally allows that, but switching prevents it.
The Rockets know this, too. So when Mitchell has the ball, Houston loads up, getting ready to help off from all of the right spots (in other words, the Jazz’s poor shooters) to stop the only threat. The result: ugly scorelines and turnovers from Mitchell, and open shots for shooters who haven’t made them.
That last bit has been critical, too. According to Jazz writer Ben Dowsett, taking into account the locations of the Jazz’s shots and the distance of the nearest defender when they were taken, the Jazz’s expected effective field goal percentage was 57.4% in Game 2— higher than any team in any game in the playoffs this year. The Jazz, whether it was due to poor luck, poor focus, or lack of talent, shot just 43.9% instead.
Korver was supposed to help the Jazz’s shooting and open more space for Mitchell, but a late-season knee injury has hobbled him on both ends, making him unplayable with Harden on the floor and unimpactful running off of screens. Ingles, typically reliable, has missed even the open ones. Rubio and Crowder are inconsistent, and have shown the downsides of that in the first two games.
“We have to just keep taking our shots and those are shots that we normally make. They’re going in and out, some of them short. They’re shots that we have to continue to take," Derrick Favors said postgame. "Ricky [Rubio] and the guards do a good job of finding guys open at the top of the key and we just have to make those shots. I don’t think there’s nothing to worry about right now, but hopefully when we get back to Utah — the home arena, in front of our home crowd, we can start knocking those shots down.”
The Jazz’s roster has two clear offensive limitations: a lack of off-the-dribble scoring wizardry, and inconsistent shooting at key positions. Over the last week, the Rockets have exposed those weaknesses time and time again.