The Rockets did not play around in Game 1 of their second-round series. Houston took advantage of a low-energy Jazz team that had just played a thrilling Game 6 two nights earlier and earned a convincing 110-96 victory. Here are three takeaways from the blowout:
Rudy Gobert Isn’t Playing OKC Anymore
During the Jazz’s first-round series with the Thunder, Rudy Gobert caused nightmares for Russell Westbrook and friends. Gobert flummoxed Westbrook all series long, making it tough for him to get to the rim and baiting him into bad midrange shots. It was the perfect game plan: Russ shot 40 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3. In Game 1 of Round 2, Chris Paul and James Harden made Gobert and the league’s most dominant defense in the second half of the regular season quickly realize that the same strategy won’t fly in this series.
Paul is a more dynamic playmaker than Westbrook and uses his probing style to orchestrate rather than always looking to score. It makes Paul unpredictable, and it’s why he was able to run circles around Gobert or Derrick Favors on Sunday. Gobert’s role in this series is fascinating. As Danny Chau wrote earlier this season, he’s a dominant player against every team in the league except the two best: the Warriors and the Rockets. That much was clear in Game 1. Gobert was lost on pick-and-rolls, and when he was switched onto Paul or Harden out on the perimeter, it did not end well:
Harden had his best game of the playoffs, skewering the Jazz for 41 points in 37 minutes, hitting seven 3s, while Paul added 17, making three 3s and going 4-of-7 on midrange jumpers. And if that wasn’t enough, an energetic Clint Capela thoroughly outplayed Gobert, helping Houston grab a 43-37 edge on the boards.
The jump in talent and execution from the Thunder to the Rockets is Grand Canyon–sized, and if Utah wants to have any shot at remaining competitive in this series, it’s clear it needs to figure out how to better utilize Gobert. Sticking him at the rim for seven games isn’t going to cut it this time.
The Jazz Need Ricky Rubio
Utah barely had time to prepare for Game 1 after closing out the Thunder roughly 36 hours before this game tipped off, and it was evident from the start. Quin Snyder will make adjustments, no doubt, but his biggest move may be one he can’t make just yet: playing Rubio. The point guard injured his hamstring in Game 6 against the Thunder and sat out Game 1 (in a resplendent hoodie-blazer combo, for what it’s worth). Snyder was forced to give minutes to Dante Exum, who was serviceable but didn’t make the same impact Rubio had in the Jazz’s previous playoff games.
Rubio’s absence also adds to Donovan Mitchell’s workload. Mitchell finished with 21 points (tied for the team high) on 9-of-22 shooting and had a few highlight moves, but he couldn’t carry the Jazz in the way he had at times in the first-round series. Without Rubio, Mitchell’s role as the primary scorer expands to having to balance both that and getting everyone—especially Joe Ingles, who was 1-for-3 from deep—going. It’s a lot of pressure on a rookie that has exceeded expectations already but may be in for his toughest test yet in this series. Rubio can’t get back on the court soon enough, but reports are that he’ll at least be out 10 days, which likely means he won’t return until Game 4 or 5. That’s bad news for the Jazz’s upset chances.
The Rockets Can Outshoot the Jazz Every Game
It’s easy to look at the Rockets’ 53.1 3-point shooting percentage in this game and predict that a regression is coming. Harden tied his playoff career high for most 3s in a single game. Those numbers are unsustainable, even for the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the league. Yet Game 1 was more likely a market correction. Aside from their ridiculous third quarter in Game 4, Houston struggled from behind the arc against the Wolves, shooting a mediocre 35 percent in the series. In Game 1, the Rockets were back to their usual ways, turning the math in their favor: The Jazz hit more field goals than them, but Houston hit 17 3s to the Jazz’s seven.
When Houston is making shots at that rate, the Jazz can’t afford to shoot 32 percent from deep or have Jae Crowder tied as their leading scorer. The Rockets’ defense was more than happy to give Crowder open 3s; he had no trouble making them this time (5-for-7), but as a 32 percent 3-point shooter on the season, he will be hard-pressed to do so again. I lost count of how many times the Jazz missed a 3 on one end only to have the Rockets hit one in their face on the other. It just about summed up Game 1, and if it continues, it could also be what sums up this entire series.