When will the Rockets take the Jazz seriously?
Apparently, now. Yesterday. Friday night.
The NBA’s best team during the regular season went up on the Jazz, 2-1, in their second-round playoff series, having won big, 113-92, and having taken back the winning vibe the Jazz had swiped from it at Houston in the second game. In doing so, the Rockets thumped an underdog that they had previously treated in demeanor as a substandard outfit, as a team that was, at most, an upper-level also-ran in the West.
The Jazz to these Rockets, and maybe darn near everybody else, were not viewed as a significant roadblock for a 65-win team that sees its destiny and destination as pretty much assured, at least until it matches up with the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals.
And then, the Jazz knocked that spin off its axis with their Game 2 win.
“They got our attention,” Rockets coach Mike D’antoni said beforehand. “And they smacked us good.”
In Game 3, Houston smacked back, restoring order, tamping down surprise and elevating the expected.
The Rockets seemed to have learned their lesson that none of the assumption and bravado that came alongside their regular season was going to help them get down and dirty here.
They had to accomplish that all over again on their own.
And, man, did they ever.
They built an early lead — 21-7 — that grew to 30-12 … 61-38 … 70-40 … and, you get the idea. The Rockets exploited familiar Jazz woes that have shadowed Utah too often even in good times — turnovers. They also gave the Jazz few clean looks. D’antoni had said his team would up the effort at the defensive end — and it did.
The Rockets’ attitude exhibited throughout indicated they now fully understand how they must play. The Jazz are more than a gifted rookie and a really tall defender, mixed with a bunch of scrubs, castoffs and no-names.
They are not to be simply dismissed, not to be patted on the head and scootched in the britches, rather they are an opponent worthy of the Rockets’ best efforts. And that’s what Houston conjured on Friday night.
Ironically, those efforts made the Jazz look sad and sorry.
Try as they might on their home floor, encouraged by their raucous fans, the Jazz couldn’t come close to finding any kind of groove in consecutive outings. Their good flow was severely interrupted here. Their efficiency on offense dropped from nearly 52 percent shooting to 41 percent. Shots that dusted the net on Wednesday in Houston, this time clanked hard off the iron.
The Jazz, as has been their way, attempted to use a combo-pack of players to fend off the explosive offense presented by the Rockets. No bueno. None of the Jazz scorers could keep them afloat. Donovan Mitchell had an off night, Joe Ingles struggled to find his range, Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors, nope.
It simply did not click.
The adjustments the Jazz made in Game 2 were not in evidence, at least not to any positive effect, in Game 3. Players sought ways to attack the Rockets’ defense, but Houston’s higher intensity negated that search.
The Jazz missed layups and when they bombed away from deep, that didn’t work much, either. Nothing did.
The aspect of this series that was supposed to be so captivating was the matchup between one of the NBA’s top offenses and one of the league’s top defenses. On this occasion, the Rockets were better on O and D. The Jazz straight couldn’t get enough stops and they couldn’t keep up.
When the Houston lead reached 75-40 early in the third quarter, Utah was cooked.
The Jazz had built big leads on opponents in the postseason, and seen them disappear. When their turn came to do some major erasing, and there was a whole lot of that in this game, it … never … happened.
“We’ve played teams that are capable of scoring in bunches,” Quin Snyder said prior to the opening tip. “I think we have been able to [withstand] some of those and respond because of who we are.”
The Jazz were not themselves on this occasion.
And even if they had been, uh, let’s say it all clear here:
When the Jazz play their best, doing what they do, and the Rockets play their best, dialing completely in, it’s advantage Rockets. When the Rockets take the Jazz seriously and play their best and the Jazz play their worst … well, you get Game 3 on Friday night.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.