As their reward for beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Utah Jazz will face the Houston Rockets, who produced one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history en route to finishing with far and away the best record in the league.
Can the Rockets be stopped? The Jazz certainly couldn’t find a way to beat them during the regular season, losing the teams’ four meetings by an average of 17.5 points, but Houston did lose 17 times during the regular season and once during its first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Can anything be learned from those games to help Utah try to limit the Rockets?
Houston had two stints during the course of the regular season in which it lost as much or more than it won. The first was a weeklong stretch from Oct. 23-30 in which it lost three out of five games, and the second was a span from Dec. 20-Jan. 26 in which it went just 9-9, including a five-game skid (the Rockets also went just 3-3 in their final six games of the regular season, although they had already locked up the top seed by then).
To finish out October, Houston lost twice to the Memphis Grizzlies before they were beset by injuries and decided in early November to tank. They beat the Sixers and Charlotte Hornets during this stretch.
While the Rockets finished the regular season by averaging 112.4 points per game, they scored just 90, 89 and 107 in these three losses. Even though Houston is incredibly potent, it doesn’t play at a super fast pace (just 14th in the league over the course of the regular season at 99.73 possessions per game), although the Grizzlies were able to dictate the pace to fit their “Grit and Grind” mantra, slowing the game way down (about an average of 94 total possessions per contest).
Although the Jazz never beat the Rockets, they also had more success in the two games in which the pace was slower (Utah finished the regular season 25th in pace at 97.78 possessions per game), on Dec. 18 and Feb. 26.
During this early season stretch, Houston, which fired away by far the most 3-point attempts of any team in the league over the course of the season, struggled some from beyond the arc. While the Rockets made 36.2 percent on the year, they hit just 29.3 percent during these three losses.
Long-distance shooting percentages are often viewed as a somewhat random statistic, but given that Houston shoots so many, Utah might be able to find some defensive success trying to run the Rockets off the 3-point line.
Moving to the stretch in December and January in which Houston had a five-game losing streak and went just 9-9 (ironically, that streak came after a Dec. 18 win over the Jazz that was the Rockets’ 14th straight and 20th in 21 games since the loss to Philadelphia, many of the Rockets’ woes came on the defensive end, although there were some offensive issues as well.
Of note during the five-game slide, Houston struggled to score in large part in the fourth quarters of close games. The opposite happened in one of the Rockets’ games against Utah, as on Dec. 18, Houston trailed the Jazz by five going into the fourth before beating them by 21. On Feb. 26, Utah trailed by seven going into the final frame before the Rockets finished well and won by 11.
Can the Jazz be physical enough to wear Houston down and beat the Rockets in the fourth quarter?
It’s surely going to be a huge challenge for Utah to try to contend with Houston, but if the regular season was an indicator, if the Jazz can slow the pace, be physical and try to limit the Rockets’ 3-point shooting, they may be able to keep games close and win in the fourth quarter.