Asked Monday evening how the Jazz’s reeling players could put aside the tragic death of Kobe Bryant for long enough to focus on the game ahead, coach Quin Snyder responded, “I think everybody understands the situation, and you move forward — as difficult as that may be for myriad reasons for everyone involved.”
It apparently was more difficult for Utah than for short-handed Houston.
Against an opponent missing its top three players and on the second night of a back-to-back, the lethargic, turnover-prone, misfiring Jazz were dropped 126-117, making the night all the more painful.
The game ended Utah’s four-game winning streak, dropped the Jazz to 32-14 on the season, and left the team looking for any kind of silver lining afterward.
“They just dominated us — mentally, physically. ... They were just tougher than us tonight. They came in to kick our ass, and they did,” said center Rudy Gobert. “It’s great sometimes to get your ass kicked like we did tonight, and not get too comfortable.”
That said, the Jazz never did look very comfortable on Monday. That didn’t seem to be an issue for the Rockets, though.
Despite league-scoring leader James Harden, former MVP Russell Westbrook, and rebounding machine Clint Capela all being sidelined, Houston took it to what had been the league’s hottest team with frenetic energy, an apparently unsolvable switching defense, and a trademark 3-point barrage — carried out this time by a slightly lesser-known supporting cast.
The Jazz, on the other hand, did a solid impression of their 2019 playoff selves — bricking try after try from beyond the arc in spite of a retooled roster designed to better help them keep pace with the league’s elite shooting teams.
While Utah came into Monday’s contest leading the league in 3-point percentage, the Jazz made only 3 of their first 21 tries against the Rockets, and finished 12 of 42 overall.
Of course, Utah had issues all over the court.
Though the Rockets started five players between 6-foot-3 and 6-6, they won the rebounding battle. That lineup also enabled them to simply switch everything defensively, and the Jazz offense could not frequently enough find gaps to penetrate, lanes in which to get downhill, leading them to settle for those tries from 3 — which, as has been noted, did not go in with much frequency.
Snyder said Utah’s myriad issues included a lack of execution, committing too many fouls, mental mistakes on the defensive end, and insufficient connectivity.
“I don’t know that there is a whole lot that we did well tonight,” he concluded.
Houston, on the other hand, did not have that issue.
For starters, the Rockets were their usual prodigious selves from beyond the arc, making 15 of 40 for the game. Not that they were settling for merely camping out and launching longballs. With the Jazz seemingly a step slow on their rotations, Houston got aggressive in going into the paint — an effort that resulted in a 49-26 advantage in free throws attempted.
Utah’s defensive issues were perhaps best illustrated by the final scoring play of the first half, when former teammate Thabo Sefolosha crossed up Joe Ingles, blew past Gobert, and finished off the 1-on-2 foray with a layup that made it a 13-point game.
“We just couldn’t stay in front of our man,” Gobert said. “... Everyone has to do a little more individually. We gotta get better at it. Dallas almost beat us doing that, and Houston got us tonight.”
Still, time after time, it appeared the Jazz were on the verge of finally getting on the right side of the supposed mismatch, only for it al to fall apart.
A rare pair of back-to-back made 3s by Bojan Bogdanovic brought Utah back within six points early in the third quarter. The team followed up with three consecutive unforced, live-ball turnovers, however — the first two by Mike Conley, the latter by Bogdanovic — and just like that, Houston was up 11 again.
It didn’t help that the Jazz defense never did find an answer for how to stop Eric Gordon. He was efficient from the floor (14 of 22), deadly from beyond the arc (6 of 11), and absolutely wore out the charity stripe (16 of 20) en route to a career-high 50 points.
Donovan Mitchell did contribute 36 for the Jazz on 14-for-25 shooting, and Bogdanovic added 30 points on 10 of 18 — but many of those were of the empty-calorie variety after the Jazz were too far behind for it to matter much.
Mitchell, like Gobert, came away knowing Utah’s intensity and focus were not where they needed to be Monday, but hopeful that this particular result would help prevent similar ones in the near future.
“They felt they could come in here and do what they wanted, and they did,” he said. “We weren’t expecting to play perfect for the rest of the year; we have games like this, there’s gonna be games like this. The biggest thing is how we respond.”