SALT LAKE CITY — Thursday at Vivint Arena, the memories came sailing back. The battles. The boisterousness. And yes, The Beard.
The outcome, though, was entirely different. This time there was much of the heat left over from last spring’s playoffs, but none of the glamour. This was two teams just trying to fight their way out of the basement. Utah came into the game against Houston in 12th place in the Western Conference, just two percentage points ahead of the Rockets.
The Jazz walked out with a ridiculously easy 118-91 win.
How did this happen? Two of the conference’s better teams have so far been surprisingly dormant. Will they be higher in the spring?
Both teams will want to clear that up right now.
The Jazz did what they’ll need to in order to stay relevant in the increasingly competitive Western Conference. They diversified. Donovan Mitchell wasn’t himself, logging just six points. Rudy Gobert began the game in foul trouble. So Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder did the heavy lifting.
The way things are developing, there will again be a lot of teams fighting for too few playoff spots next spring.
Despite the familiarity, it wasn’t exactly the pairing fans saw last spring. The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in the offseason and brought on Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis III. Anthony was released after 10 games of sheer embarrassment.
“The window, I think, for the Houston Rockets is closed,” ESPN analyst and former All-Star Paul Pierce said earlier this week.
On Thursday it looked like the shutters had been latched, too.
Houston had a season-high 22 turnovers.
Having dug themselves a sizable hole to start the season, the Jazz now balance the schedule with more home games this month. December features nine of 14 games at home, after playing just six of 16 at home in November. They have played 16 total road games — most in the league.
Nevertheless, they have been one of the league’s healthier teams throughout. They have missed just 21 player-games due to injury or illness, among the lowest in the league. The website Man Games Lost ranks them 22nd in lost-win shares, which calculates likely wins that escaped due to injured players.
In that area, the Jazz have been lucky, yet just reached .500 with the win. Last season, injuries were their excuse for a wearisome first half. This year there are no such excuses. Sixteen of their injury-games involved Raul Neto’s hamstring.
The ways Houston and Utah have underachieved so far are numerous. Houston lost two role players who were better than their replacements. The 'Melo gamble failed spectacularly. On Thursday, James Harden’s casually elegant game just looked sloppy.
As for the Jazz, teams are keying on Mitchell more aggressively than a year ago. He had just six points against the Rockets.
Most worrisome for the Jazz is that other teams are rising that didn’t make last year’s playoffs: Denver, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas and Sacramento. The Jazz were still just a game below the playoff watermark going into Thursday contest, and 5½ games out of first. Considering the Western Conference’s penchant for tight endings, even a modest deficit matters.
Thursday posed a familiar problem. In town was the gloriously bearded Harden, who can score both at the rim and away from it, and Chris Paul, who always turns it into a dogfight.
The Jazz kept both in check.
Between them, Harden and Paul turned the ball over 12 times in three quarters.
The Rockets have now lost six of their last eight games, while the Jazz have won three of the last four.
“I won’t say they (the Rockets) are the same team. Every team is different this year,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It’s a new year. James Harden is James Harden. He’s still a MVP-caliber player, if not the MVP again.”
The season is still less than one-third finished, but the ending seems clear. It will be similar to last season, when only three games separated the third-place team from the ninth. Only one Western Conference team — Phoenix — appears sure to miss the playoffs. Last year at season’s end there were six teams that didn’t stand a chance.Comment on this story
Dallas didn’t make last year’s playoffs; this year it’s in eighth place. Memphis missed the postseason but is in sixth place this year. The Lakers finished last season 12 games out of the playoffs; now they have the conference’s fifth-best record. Denver, another no-show last year, has the West’s best record. The Clippers are fighting for the lead after missing last year’s postseason.
Lastly, there’s the Kings, tied for the last playoff spot on Thursday after winning only 27 games in 2017-18.
Which is why Thursday’s game meant much more than two lower-echelon teams fighting it out.
These days, it’s hard to find anyone happy to live in the cellar.