Houston • As tends to happen in the NBA playoffs, the reality of moving to another level jolted the Jazz when the next series unfolded Sunday.
“Like jumping into ice-cold water,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder suggested after a 110-96 loss to Houston at the Toyota Center.
So here they are a year later, with the same question surfacing after Game 1 near the Texas Gulf Coast as arose last spring in the San Francisco Bay Area: Can the Jazz win even once in the Western Conference semifinals?
During a run late in the first half, Houston’s P.J. Tucker drilled consecutive 3-pointers from the left corner. The home crowd joined in a “De-fense” chant and roundly booed an out-of-bounds call in the Jazz’s favor. At the time, the Rockets led by 25 points.
After the dramatic twists and turns of the Jazz’s first-round series vs. Oklahoma City, only the contortionist act at halftime altered Houston’s relentless theme. The Jazz deserve credit for battling to the end and making the Rockets agonize mildly in the fourth quarter. The flaw of the Jazz’s resilience is it led Houston coach Mike D’Antoni to say, “We can play a lot better than this.”
So the ending of Game 1 should be either reassuring or frightening to the Jazz.
Nothing the Jazz do in this series could diminish the achievement of beating OKC. The only trouble with advancing is the reward resembles punishment. The Jazz could show their growth by lasting a game or two longer than they did in the West semis last May, but even that achievement seemed ambitious by the look and feel of things Sunday.
The conclusion from Game 1 is for the Jazz to break through, Houston’s James Harden (41 points) will have to cooperate by missing a bunch of shots and Jazz center Rudy Gobert must become more of a factor earlier. Gobert’s strong finish, once the outcome was decided, gave him 11 points and nine rebounds.
The opportunity exists for the Jazz to regroup and improve in Wednesday’s Game 2 and beyond, although only the 21 points of Donovan Mitchell and a determined effort by Jae Crowder (21 points of his own) and other reserves created much hope for the rest of the series.
“We got some momentum in the second half,” Crowder said, “trying to figure out what we can and can’t do on both ends of the court.”
With the asterisk of guard Ricky Rubio’s injury absence, this series will be another reminder that for all the Jazz have done this season, they have a long way to go to challenge the NBA’s elite. Utah is in a class with Houston and Golden State, but the truth is those teams are in their own league.
If the Jazz thought Oklahoma City was a star-driven, powerful offensive team, Houston is another force entirely. The Jazz’s challenge in Game 1 was to immediately summon more drive like the emotional effort that eliminated the Thunder.
“As proud as I am of our team,” Snyder said before the game, “we’re not stuck back there mentally.”
Physically, though? This was a demanding turnaround in 36 hours, yet some of the Jazz’s franchise history reduces that excuse. In 2010, for instance, the Jazz went from eliminating Denver to facing the No. 1 seed Los Angeles Lakers in the same time frame, and they led Game 1 with four minutes to play.
This episode was nothing like that game, the irony being that the Jazz were swept in that series even after their strong showing in the opener. Will this series play out like that one, as a repeat of Golden State’s sweep last season? That element, if nothing else, will make this thing worth watching.