The Jazz have been swept four times in their playoff history.
Three of them coming in their last four trips to the postseason — against the Warriors last year, the Spurs in 2012 and the Lakers in 2010.
Their task in 2018 is to keep that number right where it is.
It’s bigger, actually, than just that. The Jazz, if they don’t betray themselves, are good enough to beat the Rockets now and again. But likely not good enough to eliminate them in a best-of-seven. This whole affair is more to see where the Jazz are, compared with the team that has been the NBA’s best all season. And to learn what they must do to bridge the gap.
As is, in the here and now, in Game 1, it’s a bridge too far. But in the long run, who knows?
The Jazz do know they must find more consistent scoring. That’s what this Western Conference semifinal series is going to teach anyone with eyes to see, with eyes that at times will have to look through barely parted fingers.
Over stretches, it’s going to get ugly. It already has. Such as the first half on Sunday, when the Rockets had every advantage, including rest, time for preparation and general mental recalibration, playing at home, and … more talent.
James Harden, who likely will be named the league’s MVP, shredded the Jazz, and even worse he toyed with them, fiddling-and-faddling with the ball, setting them up for his assortment of bombs and drives, duping them into contact, jumping into them, conning the refs into calls few other players get.
That last part isn’t going to change. It hasn’t in the past and it won’t now.
The problem is, if Jazz defenders give the slightest amount of ground, Harden uses the space to hit open looks. If defenders crowd him, Harden moves into them, drawing contact. It’s a difficult dilemma, a tough mix of skill and craftiness/cheating. However it is characterized, it doesn’t much matter. It just is. Hoping Harden misses is a weak option, but one that is familiar to many Rockets opponents.
The Jazz’s second half was encouraging for them, a span during which they were much more efficient and actually outscored Houston. But with such a large margin of separation, it was hard to decipher exactly where the Jazz’s effectiveness began and the Rockets’ competitive attention ended.
It’s unfortunate that Ricky Rubio is unavailable, given his hamstring injury. Not because his presence would allow them to gain superiority. It would, however, give them a more accurate picture of their shortcomings in the comparative.
In that early going in Game 1, the Jazz looked like a rudderless boat. And by the time they found their direction, it was too late. The Jazz might have been able to weather their own spans of offensive inefficiency against the Thunder, who could match them in that regard, but Houston is a different kind of power. The Rockets will punish them for a propensity over spans to miss shots and commit turnovers.
It’s obvious that Rudy Gobert cannot postpone his presence around the basket at the offensive end until the fourth quarter. And, at the other end, while he’s the best in the league at covering two opponents at once, as one drives to the basket and the other awaits a pass, when the initiators are Harden and Chris Paul, that’s a challenging proposition — one that won’t work if he’s too passive and will get him in foul trouble if he’s too aggressive.
Quin Snyder’s noted desire for connectivity on defense will be tested in a major way, not just around the basket, but at the 3-point arc, from where the Rockets hit 17 of 32 attempts in the first game. If that’s the way it goes throughout, this series won’t just be short, it will be hurtful.
There’s one other component to this deal: It is the Education of a New Team.
Those iterations of the Jazz that got swept, including last season’s, were different outfits than this one. Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson are long gone. This is now about significant lessons Donovan Mitchell can learn, lessons Rubio, if he gets back in time, can learn, lessons for Royce O’Neale and even Gobert and Joe Ingles.
As the Jazz’s best players and leaders, Mitchell and Gobert, in particular, must absorb what it takes to go deep in the playoffs, to compete with a team like the Rockets and utilize that knowledge in postseasons to come.
Whether that information can be processed quickly enough to make the slightest difference in this series is yet unknown. It will be good theater to find out.
One of the reasons Jazz fans have locked onto this team the way they have is, in fact, the notion that the roof is being raised here, right in front of them. There’s promise for a brighter tomorrow. There’s promise that this team can one day compete for an NBA title.
Remember, the other Utah team that got swept in the playoffs was the 1989 Jazz, a bunch that had a couple of young and emerging stars on it — Karl Malone and John Stockton. In that best-of-five series, the Jazz had trouble matching the firepower of and keeping up with the Warriors.
That was just the beginning. They learned a few lessons along their way.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.