HOUSTON — This isn’t all that dangerous for the Jazz, is it? They’ve been here before, just under a year ago. They got dusted in the series opener against Houston, yet came back to win Game 2.
So why does Sunday’s 122-90 Game 1 loss seem so ... conclusive? Neither team’s star was all that starry. That only made the Jazz’s shortcomings as obvious as the beard on James Harden’s face.
This time it was everyone other than the stars that decided things.
Rudy Gobert was impressive, scoring 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting. But Donovan Mitchell was oddly quiet. He went 7 for 18 from the field and scored 19 points. The stats look better that he did.
If Mitchell isn’t great, his team isn’t even good. But Houston did fine, even without Harden. With 6:50 left in the third quarter, Harden drew his fourth foul, but didn’t come out until the end of the quarter, with Houston leading by 12. By the time he got back in with 7:58 to go in the game, Houston was ahead by 17. The Rockets starting lineup, sans-Harden, scored 58 points. The non-Mitchell starters scored 53.
More important, Houston’s bench scored 35 points, the Jazz bench 18.
Last year the Jazz had lingering momentum after their first-round win over Oklahoma City. This year it could be over before you can spell Oklahoma.
A basketball idiom says a series doesn’t truly get interesting until someone loses at home. After the Jazz won Game 2 last year, Houston won three straight to finish off the series. Sunday they looked like they could win three more, without interruption.
The night began with the usual playoff pregame fanfare, including bone-shaking bass beats, blinding lights, flames and fireworks.
Then Dennis Rodman showed up.
It made no real sense to have him there. But wherever the former Chicago Bulls star shows up, it seldom makes sense. He once appeared in a wedding with himself. And what was he doing in North Korea, anyway?
On Sunday Rodman wore a T-shirt advertising Anytickets.com.
For most of the night, the Jazz did what they could. It had little to do with effort and everything to do with talent and depth. Harden started quickly, then ran into foul problems. The Jazz did their best to share the load on him. But he scored over 50 points nine times this year.
Holding him to 29 points wasn’t bad. In a different twist, only three of his points came from the free-throw line.
Mainly, Harden did what he does. The mere threat of him scoring does nearly as much damage. That allowed everyone else a chance to get in on the act. Harden had 10 assists and eight rebounds.
Mitchell finished with five rebounds and zero assists.
If the Jazz are to win this series — or any series — they need better than that from their star, every game. On Sunday they looked like grass clippings on the Rockets’ path to a championship. A Houston Chronicle headline last week said, “For Rockets, ‘only one thing left,’ and that’s an NBA title.”
The message was this: Dear Jazz, please move to the right.
Houston is a fast car on an open road. The Jazz are a traffic jam on a hot day.9 comments on this story
Since the All-Star break, though, both teams improved on their weaknesses. From that point, Houston ranked second in the NBA in offensive rating, the Jazz a surprising fourth. Defensively, Houston ranked second since the break, Utah first.
“I don't know that we're going to become Houston, or they’re going to become us,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I think ... for us to be efficient offensively, to play vertically, and not allow them to just fill the perimeter, that's where we can find some success.”
Fansplaination: Don’t stand around. Get to the basket.
“Often times that’s easier said than done,” Snyder said.
It’s always that way with Houston.