HOUSTON — Partway through the first quarter, Rudy Gobert found himself exposed on the perimeter, trying to guard MVP-to-be James Harden. It’s a task no 7-footer should face.
Soon Harden had a terribly easy but oh-so-deadly layup.
It was a metaphor for the entire proceedings.
Houston blew the doors off the Jazz, 110-96.
The Jazz are now down one game and one starting point guard. The scary thing for them is there could have been others on the casualty list. Donovan Mitchell rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter, but returned. Gobert went to the free-throw line massaging and rotating his shoulder, then missed two attempts. Both showed up fine in the postgame media session.
Mitchell tweaked his ankle when he and Eric Gordon stepped into the same space. But 32 seconds later, he returned.
“I’m fine,” he said.
The Jazz? Not so much. The Rockets exposed them, not as a bad team, but a team that played a wee-hours game against Oklahoma City roughly 36 hours before — minus injured point guard Ricky Rubio. They could have used Rubio, some rest, some prep time, and maybe an energy drink.
“Once the ball goes up,” coach Quin Snyder said, “you just need to compete.”
But this is Houston. How many teams can compete with that?
So this is the best team in the league, so far. The Jazz knew it in November. And December. And February. The way things are going, they won’t get much of a look in May. But asked if it was the “total game” he had been looking for, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, “No. It was a total game until halftime. Halftime happened and we didn’t have a lot of the juice we should have had.”
Jazz Nation: Yikes!
D’Antoni isn’t a dunce, he’s been in these situations before. On Sunday he exploited the Jazz's weaknesses, some having to do with Rubio’s absence, others not. Mostly, though, he stayed out of Chris Paul’s and James Harden’s way. That’s not an unpleasant thing, considering they scored 14 and 21 points respectively in the first half. Harden went on to total 41.
The proceedings looked distantly familiar, like last year when they reached the second round, only to run into the league’s best team, Golden State.
With the score already getting out of hand, Gobert ended up near the top of the 3-point circle, guarding Harden. Gobert is a supreme defender — in the paint. This occurred in the open. Harden passed him like an ambulance at a stoplight.
Unlike Oklahoma City in the first round, the Rockets took what was offered in the way of shots, rather than merely taking as many shots as possible. The Jazz’s worries were coming true. Houston made five of its first seven 3-point shots as the lead got to 27 before halftime.
The fact the Jazz are down 1-0 in the series is not news. They got beat by a combined 70 points in four regular-season games with the Rockets. Losing on the road, after playing late Friday and early Sunday, is as un-newsy as “Dog Bites Man.”
In other non-news, Harden and Paul are superb.
The Jazz’s two stars, Gobert and Mitchell, were relatively quiet after a noisy first-round series for both. Gobert didn’t take a shot in the first half, didn’t block a shot, and got just three rebounds. He got his first attempt with 8½ minutes remaining in the game. Mitchell made just 1-of-7 3-pointers on the night. Though he finished with 21 points, it was his first non-double-double of the playoffs.
It’s not as though the Jazz couldn’t see this coming. They didn’t stop Harden in any of their four games in the regular season. He scored as many as 56 points and as “few” as 26.
Considering Rubio’s spotty career before coming to Utah, it’s still hard to fathom his status — out indefinitely with a pulled hamstring — being a major factor. But it is. The Jazz desperately need his creativity, his shooting and most of all his judgment. They can use Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Raul Neto or David Stockton at point. They can ask Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles to initiate the offense. But it’s a different team without Rubio.
“It kind of changes for all of us, really,” said Ingles.
But nothing changes things as much as when Harden shows up.