Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 112-89 win over the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. The dominance of Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley
Mike Conley finished with a +46 tonight in 25 minutes. Rudy Gobert finished with a +44 in 26 minutes. They played with exactly the same minutes until the end, when Gobert was shooting free throws so he couldn’t come out of the game, so a Rockets bucket slightly ruined the symmetry. Those two also lead the NBA in plus-minus, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that they’d do so in any individual night.
But it’s also worth thinking way back to last season, when the chemistry of Gobert and Conley was really in question. Remember, Conley began his first season with Utah struggling to make any sort of impact, and the biggest reason was his unfamiliarity with Gobert — as a rolling big man, he plays very differently than Marc Gasol in Memphis.
Phew, that’s not the case now. The pair have become one of the most devastating twosomes in the NBA; those two together outscore opponents by 17.4 points per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor.
Just tonight, the pairing went on a 14-0 run from 30 seconds left in the first to 9:30 left in the second, a 12-2 run from the 2:58 mark of the second until halftime, and a 10-2 run from the start of the fourth to the 9:57 mark of the fourth quarter. They outscored the Rockets by 26-4 in those combined eight minutes — and then still outscored them by 20 in the other 17-odd minutes they played. Just incredible.
Those runs did make me think, though: how much of this is just against bench units? Quin Snyder’s played this brilliant rotation this year by playing Conley and Gobert together against opposing bench players, and it’s seemingly every game where the Jazz get a 10-0 run as a result. But in the playoffs, teams aren’t going to play their bench minutes as much. Will this rotation still work?
The good news is: yes, it probably still will!
Whether or not Georges Niang is out there is a pretty good proxy for whether or not the opposing bench is too. In the vast majority of his minutes, Niang isn’t playing against opposing starters. And in those Conley/Gobert/Niang minutes, the Jazz are outscoring teams by 18.2 points per 100 possessions. Terrific, obviously.
But even when Niang’s not out there, those Conley/Gobert lineups still outscore teams by 16.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s still really amazing! In short, there’s not a lot of evidence for my fears.
Gobert/Conley lineups are great, no matter when or who they play.
2. Keeping the ball moving against switching defenses
Remember when the Rockets’ switching used to just decimate what the Jazz were doing offensively? Well, the Jazz’s offense just smashed the Rockets’ switching defense tonight.
Now, the biggest reason for this turnaround is that the Rockets defense has, uh, changed.
It’s much, much easier to look good against a bad defense of any type than a good one.
But that being said, I do think Conley’s veteran knowhow, Clarkson’s scoring ability, and Gobert’s improvement at catching and finishing down low has made this into a relative strength of Utah’s.
Because they switch everything, you can do this with both on-ball and off-ball screens. With the on-ball screens, I think this was a pass that most previous Jazz point guards were afraid to throw, even Ricky Rubio, who never was a terrific interior passer. Conley has figured it out well.
And with the off-ball screens, you can attack switches even more surprisingly, with lobs like this:
Again, the Rockets are the worst team in the NBA, were shorthanded, and are obviously in “let’s finish out the season” mode. But it’s nice to see the Jazz get this win so effortlessly, leading wire-to-wire.
3. Do... we... feel... bad (?) for the Rockets?
Okay, probably not.
But it was wild to come into a matchup against the Rockets on the road and for the Jazz to have exactly zero fear of them. Remember, this was a team that the Jazz lost games in order to avoid in the playoffs last year. And now, they’re a calamity.
I do think there is some blame to go around. Injuries are a bummer: Eric Gordon might help. Sterling Brown and D.J. Augustin are certainly NBA players. Dante Exum probably is, though he’s running out of time to show it.
But mostly, James Harden is the architect of this. As ESPN’s Tim MacMahon wrote in January, the Houston Rockets’ culture during Harden’s tenure was “Whatever James wants.” The Rockets stayed overnight in his favorite cities, so that he could go out on the town after the game. If the Rockets had two or three days off, he’d call for an off day of practice so he could charter a plane, go to another city (often Vegas) and party there.
On the court, he asked for Kevin McHale to be fired. He pushed for the departures of both Dwight Howard and Chris Paul — the latter looking especially foolish now. Harden said he’d demand a trade if they didn’t trade Paul, the superior player, for his friend Westbrook. One season later, he didn’t want to play with Westbrook anymore, Westbrook wanted timeliness and structure.
So instead, Harden didn’t show up for training camp and didn’t communicate with the team during his absence. While he left his new coach twisting in the wind, Harden was partying maskless during the pandemic, going to rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party and delivering him $100K stacks of cash.
“Yeah, he’s going to act up,” a former Rockets staffer told ESPN. “He’s never heard ‘no’ before.”
This line from MacMahon’s article says a lot: “The Rockets hope Harden... will be professional as they patiently explore the trade market, searching for a deal that wouldn’t doom the franchise to a long, painful rebuild.”
Well, Harden got his wish: he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. The Rockets got surprisingly little in return — but after everything Harden had done to betray his last franchise, demand for one of the best offensive players in NBA history was muted.
The Rockets, indeed, look pretty darn doomed to a long, painful rebuild. They have a few picks, but it’s not a huge treasure chest of assets. And as far as building block young players go, it depends what you think about Christian Wood, but that’s about it.
It’s hard to look at everything that happened this season and call it anything but a disastrous selfish tantrum from an all-time great. It’s why Harden’s MVP, or even All-NBA case this season is laughable — as much as Harden’s been a good player as a Net, his sabotage turned a very good team, a frightening opponent, into the worst team in the NBA with the blink of an eye. The negatives have outweighed the positives.
Harden ignited the Rockets, then blew them to pieces.