The Triple Team: Jazz were ‘a little too nice’ against Rockets, says Rudy Gobert. Can they set a better tone?

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, right, watches the final moments of Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Houston Rockets in Houston, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. At left is Jazz guard Ricky Rubio. The Rockets won 118-98 and lead the series 2-0. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-98 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz didn’t respond to Houston’s defensive tone

I’m not big on cliches like “setting the tone.” Most of the time, setting the tone early just means you just made some shots early, or you have better players than the other team, or your coach drew up a great play, or something like that. “Setting the tone” is this intangible thing, something we use to explain what happened without having to get into the nitty gritty of what actually happened.

But from the very beginning of the game, the Rockets were into the Jazz defensively, and the Jazz responded by doing nothing about it. The Jazz had a turnover nine seconds into the game: Joe Ingles gets bodied up as he tries to drive, and ends up losing the ball out of bounds.

On the next play, Ingles comes late on the rotation, and it’s a Clint Capela lob. That’s a lack of focus, to be sure.

So I think the Jazz tried the same play on the next one, and this time, Ingles stops short. Ingles has to reset to Mitchell who has to create with no advantage, and dribbles the ball off his foot. Weirdly, Mitchell doesn’t really go after the loose ball with any energy, then once Eric Gordon does get it, Mitchell grabs his hip for no reason as Gordon tries to score. And-one.

The Jazz had two days to stew about the Game 1 loss, and this is the result? They talked about how they needed to nail their rotations, how they needed to play with force on the offensive end, and they talked about how tough they wanted to make life for the Rockets to get to their spots. And instead they came out and did exactly none of it. They lost the first quarter 39-19. That 20-point deficit was also the final margin in the game.

“They’re playing more aggressive than we are. We’re a little too nice. If you’re going to be nice, you’re going to get your ass kicked every night," Rudy Gobert said. It’s just mental. We can say whatever we want, but if we’re too nice, they’re not going to respect us. They’re going to kick our ass.”

Quotes like this are promising, and they’re more pointed than what the players said after Game 1. But now they’re down 2-0 in the series, and will need to win four of their next five against a team that hasn’t lost four games in two months. It’s not quite too late, but it’s close.

2. Donovan Mitchell scored 11 points

Look, this game is not all or even mostly Donovan Mitchell’s fault. A lot of players had bad nights: Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Thabo Sefolosha, Kyle Korver, etc. But the truth is that it’s reasonable to hold Mitchell to a higher standard because of the skill he’s shown in his young career so far, including in the playoffs last season.

Mitchell wasn’t good enough, though. He only scored 11 points on 5-of-19 shooting, and while he did get six assists — much better than Game 1′s zero assist performance — he added four turnovers and five fouls on the defensive end.

“I didn’t show up. Simply put. That can’t happen,” he said.

Mitchell is typically hard on himself after losses like this, but again there was a difference between Game 1′s acceptance and Game 2′s anger.

This play was among the worst. Mitchell gets the ball and Danuel House is guarding him. House isn’t a great defender, but he’s not terrible, so this is a bit of a strange mismatch to try to exploit. But Mitchell tries to, and goes to his own step-back jump shot, or in other words, he settles.

Oh, and then the Jazz are forced to play transition defense, which they screw up, and Eric Gordon gets a wide open three.

We talked about this in Sunday’s Triple Team, but he does just have to attack sooner, or call for another screen. The Jazz’s offense is built around “advantage basketball," to get an advantage and continue to widen it until it’s an easy shot. Despite some time, Mitchell never got an advantage, then throws up the shot to end the possession. It’s not great.

“I’ll probably watch the game four or five times. I did the same thing after Game 1," Mitchell said. "But I just have to show up, man. That’s all I’ve got. I could watch film for the next three days, but I’ve got to do it. That’s it.”

3. Defense on Harden

The Jazz went to a variance strategy on James Harden in Game 2: they tried the Game 1 look of forcing him to Gobert, but mixed in some more standard defense as well. And perhaps just as important, they changed up primary defenders to give him some more looks.

And it didn’t really matter. If you stay in front of Harden, he will do this to you.

The Jazz still limited him to five free-throws, which is pretty good. But you absolutely can’t do this while defending him, which might be one reason Sefolosha’s minutes were replaced with Georges Niang minutes in the late third quarter.

Still: 32 points on 11-24 shooting plus eight turnovers is not too shabby against Harden, actually. And the defense only gave up 94.4 points per 100 possessions in half-court scenarios, which is decent enough. It’s just that the Jazz can’t score, so there are a ton of transition chances for the Rockets to take advantage of.

“It doesn’t matter what we do as far as schemes go if we don’t have that intensity and that effort. Coach can draw up a great game plan, which I think he has, and we just haven’t executed it well,” Mitchell said.

The chances to do so are rapidly dwindling.