The Triple Team: Jazz can’t shoot against the Rockets again, nor can they stop Harden and Westbrook

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00), Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) try to get some momentum in the second half. The Utah Jazz lost to the Houston Rockets 110-120 at Vivint Arena, Feb. 22, 2020.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-110 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz’s 3-point attack falters

The Rockets hit 20 threes tonight, while the Jazz only hit seven. The Jazz scored 64 points in the paint tonight, while the Rockets only scored 36. 39 is 11 more than 28, the Jazz lost by 10 points.

In particular, the Jazz shot only 22% from 3-point range tonight. If they shoot their usual 38% from deep, they make 11 threes instead, and win.

This is now seemingly the one-millionth example of the Jazz not getting their threes to fall against the Rockets. And while there’s evidence that 3-point shooting defense is highly, highly random, the trend of the Jazz being unable to shoot the three against the Rockets now goes back multiple years with wildly different calibers of shooters.

Here’s the Jazz’s record against the Rockets since 2017-18, along with their 3-point shooting in every game.

DateHome/road W/LJazzRockets3P M3P A3P%
2017-12-07 HOUL101112113036.7%
2018-02-26 HOUL859672924.1%
2018-05-04 HOUL92113112937.9%
2018-05-06 HOUL8710072924.1%
2018-12-06 HOUW1189183225.0%
2019-02-02 HOUL98125114126.8%
2019-04-20 HOUL101104124129.3%
2019-04-22 HOUW10791113531.4%
2020-01-27 HOUL117126124228.6%
2020-02-21 HOUL11012073122.6%
   5-21  20968730.4%

So 30% 3-point shooting over the course of 21 games isn’t great. But recently — sans the Jazz’s Feb. 9 win against the Rockets — it’s been even worse. In 9 of those last 11 games, they’ve shot below 30%. That’s hard to do!

I asked Quin Snyder about this very issue. Here was his response:

“It’s hard to generalize on that. I thought we had good shooters with some good looks and we didn’t knock them down. I think when you don’t make shots it impacts our defense... There are a number of things that you can point to as far as the three-point shooting goes. I don’t know if you can attribute it to Houston or not. I felt we got some good looks.”

Here’s the deal: the Jazz need to figure out whether you can attribute it to Houston or not, because if you can, then the strategy needs to change; it’s just so hard to shoot this poorly from three and win games.

The larger 21-game sample is statistically significant. But the 3-game sample — since the team got Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, etc. instead of Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, etc. — isn’t. So which do you believe? Do you think the best 3-point shooting team in the league will figure it out against the Rockets? Or do you think it’s the Jazz system clashing with Houston in an ugly way that means that these threes don’t go in?

That’s a really difficult question... it feels answerable, but it’d take days of video scouting, and even then it’d be a guess. But let’s say you make a change. What’s the opportunity cost of that change? How good can you get at it before a playoff series? Honestly, this was the problem that cooked the Jazz in the first two games of last year’s series: the defensive strategy change against James Harden was good and sound, but the Jazz were terrible at it the first time they tried it, and below-average the second time. By the time the Jazz got good at it, they were down 0-2 and had nearly definitely lost the series.

Oh, and exactly what change would you make? Never take threes? Not play Joe Ingles? Bojan Bogdanovic has also struggled, should you not play him? Okay, then you’re out of good players, to be honest.

I don’t know what I would do. I would definitely pull a Nuggets-from-2019 and tank if necessary in order to avoid the Rockets, though. Another 4-5 matchup against them seems like the hardest possible first-round option.

2. Rudy on Russell Westbrook

Once again, the Jazz had Rudy Gobert defend Russell Westbrook. And once again, Westbrook scored well anyway, getting 34.

This time it was a little different, though. In the Jazz’s first matchup they tried this, Gobert got bested at the rim once James Harden set a screen on him. This time, Westbrook got 20 of his points from the perimeter. Westbrook went 7-13 from midrange and 2-4 from 3-point range.

Here’s Russ’ tracking stats on any shot from 10 feet or further this season, from both 2-point range and 3-point range, separated by how far the defender was away.


Westbrook’s midrange shot, when open, is actually pretty good. That 55% you see is on a small sample size, but it’s also about what it was last season too. It’s what he calls his “cotton shot," because it’s nothing but net. As he said postgame, “It’s cash. Me and my pops worked on that at 14 years old. Cash money.”

In my opinion, Gobert can do a better job of contesting it while still making the drive to the rim difficult. He’s shown a tremendous ability to recover when beaten in the dribble-drive game, so he can afford to be within 4-6 feet of Westbrook at all times, not sagging off by seven or more. Basically, do this.

I do like the strategy of having Gobert guard Westbrook in general, though. It allows him to help on other players’ actions, and because Westbrook’s not really a catch-and-shoot guy, Gobert can recover in time to get close enough to Westbrook if he catches the ball. Like, the Rockets only got to the rim on 29% of their possessions tonight, well below league average. They’re scared of Gobert down low. But if he’s guarding P.J. Tucker or Robert Covington, he never really gets that chance.

3. Jazz try a zone!

The Jazz had played four possessions of zone all season long coming into tonight’s game, according to Synergy Sports.

Tonight, they played 14 possessions of zone. And it worked! On six of those possessions, the Rockets scored, on eight of them, they didn’t. That’s not too bad. Here’s what Snyder said, when asked about how it worked and whether he’d do it again:

“It’s something we’ve talked about at various times. Sometimes coming into the game, we’ve considered using it and then not done it for whatever reason. It’s just an opportunity to give them a different look in certain situations,” he said. “I thought we had some success with it in the first half. Part of the nature of zone is that you’re going to give something up, and whether or not the ball goes in makes you feel like you’re playing well (or not). I don’t think it’s anything we’ll commit to the way that, you know, Syracuse would. But really it comes down to giving James Harden different looks, or in certain matchup situations."

Snyder’s point about the ball going in or not is true: the Rockets did just miss two wide-open 3-point shots against the zone in the second quarter, ones that they probably should have made. But then there are situations like this, where they tried to force it and ended up taking a bad shot:

I don’t think it’s the answer against the Rockets, in other words, but it does have the potential to change things up every once in a while.