The Jazz might as well be playing a different sport than the Rockets. Utah has been one of the best teams in the NBA over the past two seasons, but has had no answers for Houston: The Jazz lost their second-round series last season in five games, and lost 122-90 on Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round series. They have trouble defending the Rockets in space, and they don’t have enough playmakers who can attack their smaller and more versatile defenders; Houston is built to exploit their weaknesses on both ends of the floor. The Rockets have internalized the lessons of the past few postseasons as much as any team in the league. As a result, it’s almost impossible to beat them without playing their style of basketball.
The Rockets are a prototypical spread pick-and-roll team. The offensive roles of each player in their rotation are rigidly defined: They always play multiple ball handlers who run pick-and-rolls to create isolations, multiple 3-point shooters who space the floor enough to make those isolations possible, and a big man who sets screens and rolls hard to the rim. Their system is based on spreading out the weakest link in the opposing defense, forcing their worst perimeter defenders to defend in space, and then taking advantage of the breakdown to create open 3s. Their defense is designed to take away everything they do well on offense. Houston gives up size at every position to play defenders with the speed to switch screens. The Rockets don’t switch as much as they did last season, but they have the option on every possession.
Nothing they do is a secret. Every team has the same basic foundation. Few are as committed to the underlying principles. Houston has always tried to maximize offensive efficiency under GM Daryl Morey. That process happened in real time this season. They added more ball-dominant players like Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams to their supporting cast in the offseason, but the two were poor fits in a system that forced them to spend most of the game spotting up at the 3-point line, while Carmelo’s inability to move his feet created a glaring weak spot in their defense. The Rockets sunk below .500 in the first few weeks of the season while struggling to integrate the newcomers. They eventually traded both; it was like an immune system rejecting a foreign transplant.
Houston spent the next few months looking for players who better fit its system. James Harden’s historic offensive performance in the regular season overshadowed the systematic search for role players happening around him: The Rockets used 23 different players during the season. Their three top reserves in Game 1 against the Jazz—Austin Rivers, Danuel House Jr., and Kenneth Faried—weren’t on their roster in October. All three are thriving in their new roles in Houston. Rivers is a secondary ball handler who spots up and defends both guard positions. House is a 3-and-D swingman who can also put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts. Faried gives them another big man behind Clint Capela who can catch lobs and extend out on the perimeter on defense.
The result is a team with few weak links in its rotation. Houston looks the same no matter who is on the floor. Harden is its offensive centerpiece, but Chris Paul can do a decent imitation of him for stretches of the game, especially against second-unit defenders. The Rockets had a net rating of plus-19.2 in the 12 minutes Paul played without Harden in Game 1, and he closed out the Jazz in Game 5 last season, with 41 points on 13-of-22 shooting and 10 assists. Everyone else fits around them. The two start the game running pick-and-rolls with Capela, while Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker spot up at the 3-point line. Gordon or Rivers fill in as the no. 2 option next to Paul when Harden sits, while House, Gerald Green, and Iman Shumpert cycle through as spot-up shooters, and Faried spots Capela.
Houston runs pick-and-rolls at opposing big men for 48 minutes until they crack. Utah starts two in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, both of whom are at their best when defending closer to the basket. It doesn’t matter against the vast majority of NBA teams because the Jazz can shrink the court and funnel penetration to their big men. Few teams spread the floor as well as the Rockets, or have as many as different players who can shoot pull-up 3s. That shot didn’t exist a few years ago, and its popularity has made defensive schemes built around rim-protecting big men less feasible at the highest levels of the sport. Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has improved as a perimeter defender, but he will never be as agile as a smaller center like Capela.
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder has dug deep into his bag of tricks to keep Gobert closer to the rim. He used a variation of the strategy the Spurs used to knock off the Rockets in the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago, and that was made famous by the Bucks in a 108-94 victory over the Rockets in March. Instead of guarding Harden at the 3-point line, Gobert drops to the front of the rim, with Harden’s defender sitting on the left side of his body. The idea is to take away his stepback 3 and dare him to beat Gobert at the rim, with the hope of forcing him to take a lot of contested 2-pointers. It’s a strategy with no margin for error: They are giving an MVP-caliber player a wide-open lane to the basket while also asking three defenders to cover the other four offensive players on the floor.
The scheme limited Harden in Game 1, who finished with 29 points on 11-of-26 shooting. He is at his best when he can get to the 3-point line and the free throw line, and he finished well below his season averages in both the former (4-of-10) and the latter (3-of-3). The problem for Utah was that he still got everyone else going: The Rockets shot 15-of-41 from 3 (36.6 percent) while Capela and Faried combined for 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting. Houston didn’t even take advantage of every potential counter. Harden missed most of his floaters, a shot that he has added this season to attack those types of defenses, and they never went small with Tucker at the 5. That adjustment would force Gobert to either stray from the paint or leave a wide-open shooter at the 3-point line.
The most successful defensive strategy against the Rockets has been to switch every screen that Harden is in. That is what the Warriors have done against them in the postseason. They benched all their traditional big men by the end of last year’s Western Conference finals, using a platoon of Kevon Looney, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Jordan Bell at the 5. The goal isn’t to stop Harden as much as it is to prevent him from creating open 3s for everyone else. Switching screens allows the other three defenders on the floor to stay at home. Bad luck isn’t the reason the Rockets missed 27 straight 3s in Game 7 of the WCF. They weren’t getting the same open looks from behind the arc they get against teams like the Jazz, who have to rotate all over the floor to cover Harden.
The other problem for Utah is it doesn’t have the personnel to attack Houston on defense when it switches screens. Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s only player who can consistently create his own shot off the dribble, and they surround him with inconsistent 3-point shooters whom defenses can help off of. Jae Crowder, Thabo Sefolosha, and Royce O’Neale combined to shoot 2-of-13 from 3 on Sunday. The Jazz need more from Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles, but they are both more suited to moving the ball in Snyder’s intricate half-court sets than hunting for their own shot in cramped spaces. Their best chance to get back in the series may be to bench Favors and play Sefolosha and Crowder as small-ball 5s when Gobert is out. They might as well try something different. There is a reason they are 1-9 against Houston and Golden State in the past three postseasons.
The NBA has been trending toward small ball for a long time. LeBron James and Steph Curry aren’t the only reasons that the Cavs and Warriors met in the past four Finals. Both teams had big men who could defend in space, guards who could shoot off the dribble, and wings who could spread the floor and defend multiple positions. Teams with those pieces can create mismatches that lead to open 3s on offense, and eliminate those same mismatches on defense. The same pattern has happened at lower levels in each conference. Al Horford, the prototypical small-ball 5, played for the Hawks and the Celtics in the past four seasons. His teams went 0-4 in playoff series against the Cavs, and 7-0 against the rest of the Eastern Conference. Harden is 0-3 against the Warriors, and 5-1 against the rest of the West in that same span.
The Jazz are swimming against the tide. Bigger teams almost never beat small-ball teams in the playoffs anymore. Utah has spent the past three seasons trying and failing to crack the code. Houston took the opposite approach, dumping Dwight Howard and going small around Harden. They have been single-mindedly focused on beating Golden State, creating a team that has an advantage against everyone else in the process, and forcing the rest of the league to evolve. There probably isn’t a team in the NBA that can realistically accumulate as much talent as the Warriors anytime soon, but there are a lot of teams that can play more like the Rockets, and plenty of players who can play more like Harden. It’s the easiest way to win in the playoffs. It might be the only way.