Houston • It’s tough enough as it is to guard James Harden and Chris Paul.
A reporter asked Jazz coach Quin Snyder on Monday what the best strategy was to stopping Harden, the likely MVP who led the NBA in scoring during the regular season (30.4 ppg).
“You ask him to miss,” Snyder deadpanned. “You say, ‘Please James, will you miss this time down?’ And you see if he’s, like, magnanimous enough to do you a favor.”
What makes it even tougher is how the Rockets play has a natural way of scrambling assignments. Even when the Jazz feel that they can get consistency from one particular defender such as Royce O’Neale, who guarded Harden for 55 percent of his possessions, the Rockets are often able to whirl defenses around to get matchups they want.
For example: Paul, who had 17 points and 6 assists while shooting 7 for 14 from the field, wasn’t guarded by any one Jazz player for more than 14 possessions in Game 1. That included five possessions where he was guarded by 6-foot-10 Derrick Favors, against whom he knocked down a pair of 3-pointers.
It’s bad enough that the Rockets have good players. It’s worse for the Jazz when they can’t guard them the way they want. Especially in transition defense, when decisions have to be made quickly, sometimes the closest Rocket is the one to guard, even if Houston pulls back and runs a half-court play.
JAZZ AT ROCKETS
When • Wednesday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • TNT
“It takes all five guys on the court communicating, that’s for sure,” Jae Crowder said. “You have to accept it. If they’re cross-matching and they’re running back, you just gotta demand a guy and stick with him for that possession and work it out.”
The problem of defending the Rockets starts with offense. The Jazz run more screens and pick-and-roll actions than many teams in the NBA thanks to their looks with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. The way the Rockets roster is built — with so many versatile wing defenders such as Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Luc Mbah a Moute and even Harden — they often just switch assignments on every screen the Jazz run.
Not only is that often hard to attack, but if the Rockets get a stop, they can run in transition, and while the Jazz try to take stock of who has what assignment, Houston can simply attack.
It leads to plays like in the first half of Game 1, when Donovan Mitchell was sitting in the lane as Paul was rolling down the floor. Technically, Paul was his assignment. Jae Crowder was trying to cut off Paul on the fast break, but also signaling to Mitchell to switch onto Trevor Ariza, who was spacing on the opposite end of the floor. Mitchell finally moved over toward Ariza, but too late: Ariza hit a 3-pointer that Mitchell was only able to weakly contest.
Those kinds of decisions can happen all the time if the Jazz allow the Rockets to get rolling while hesitating themselves.
“There’s a subtlety to that, and you can’t be afraid to be cross-matched at the expense of an open three,” Snyder said. “As you’re trying to get back to your man, oftentimes, both Chris and James, they’re so good at seeing the whole floor, they’re able to anticipate where those guys are going and either lead you somewhere else with their eyes, or wait for it to unfold.”
The other threat is that Harden, who is the league’s best scorer, can command attention in transition, leading to opportunities for others. If O’Neale, for example, tries to make sure he is guarding Harden, he may be leaving another wing defender open on the side.
There’s other ways that Paul and Harden got mismatches in Game 1: Too often, Jazz guards were screened out of plays, forcing Gobert or Favors to try to guard the 3-point line, or protect from the drive to the rim. On his very first basket of the game, Harden was able to drive to his left on Gobert and get a lay-up.
Some of that is avoidable. Some is not. Snyder suggested that the Jazz will stick to their defensive principles and try to execute better. Guards will need to fight through screens better than they did in Game 1.
But other times, especially in transition, the Rockets will find a mismatch. And the Jazz will have to live with it.
“Going into the series, we said cross-matching was going to be a big thing,” O’Neale said. “Everybody’s gonna have their chance to guard [Harden]. You just gotta make it tough, take away those shots.”