November 22, 2017

Basketball lovers who fantasize about a potential play-in component to the NBA playoffs would have enjoyed Wednesday night’s Western Conference action.

Four teams entered the evening separated by one game in the loss column, clustered at spots six through nine in the conference standings. Three of the four will get into the postseason, one will not. And on Wednesday night, they played each other in a makeshift, late-March, pre-playoff tournament of sorts. Houston-Utah first, then Portland-Dallas in a Northwest nightcap.

The Rockets-Jazz game in Houston had a particularly crazy tenor to it. The Rockets managed to give back an 18-point lead, losing by a bucket after Derrick Favors dunked home the game-winner with 1.6 seconds remaining. In all, it was a 55-38 second half in Utah’s favor, featuring runs of 11-0, 10-2 and 11-2.

The Jazz managed to get it done despite off nights from two of their key guys. Rodney Hood was scoreless at the half, 2-for-11 for the night, and struggled just as much on the defensive end. He got frozen in his tracks too often or just flat spaced out, something you can’t do when primarily responsible for checking James Harden, one of the game’s most prolific scorers.

And starting center Rudy Gobert hasn’t had a game that categorically bad in a really long time, shooting 1-for-7 with four turnovers and a net rating of -21.8 points per 100 possessions in his 23 minutes.  He played poorly enough that it took Jazz coach Quin Snyder just 1:10 to replace him in the second half.

So how did Utah climb out of an 18-point hole despite two of its big four scuffling? Their stars played like stars, and they won the adjustment game.

Houston strung Utah’s ball handlers out in the first half by trapping pick-and-rolls aggressively. The Jazz have long struggled with that, and for large stretches of the opening session, driving routes were walled off and their offense was essentially comprised of passes around the horn for 20 seconds and a frantic shot. The weak side help was playing aggressively too, so many of those passes went the other way – Utah had 22 turnovers in the game.

Over the course of the first 24 minutes, the Jazz did calm down a bit and found some open shots, but couldn’t can them. They missed 11 threes in the first half, most of which were wide open. At halftime, they were sporting a 31 percent field goal percentage, 27 percent from deep.

After intermission, Utah starting playing those slightly different. When the trap was coming, they’d have the screener slip the screen a little early, and then the handler would pass out just a beat before the trap arrived. Usually that meant a second creator going to work from the opposite elbow. That was when Houston trapped at all – they were a lot more laissez fare about hounding the ball handler in the second half.

On the other end, Utah was committed to its defensive game plan for handling Harden ball screens, and stuck to it throughout the night. Their bigs mostly shaded the ball, which was particularly effective when the very mobile Favors was the one patrolling.

On screens with smalls, Utah chose to switch, their usual strategy for handling guard-to-guard picks. In previous matchups, Harden roasted Utah’s point guards on those switches, but this time around Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto both had their turns helping admirably on Harden.

The combination of those tactics mostly kept Harden from getting to the middle, although depending on the defender, he also had some success attacking without a screen on a 1-4 flat setup. Hood saw Harden’s taillights a lot in that scenario, and La Barba would just pull up over reserve guard Chris Johnson in the brief minutes those two faced off at the two spot.

That’s how Harden made his way to 26 points and 10 assists, picking apart momentary lapses and surgically attacking matchups. But by keeping the bigs back, Utah was able to keep too many other Rockets from doing major damage. Four other Rockets hit double figures, but Trevor Ariza’s dozen was the max for anybody outside Houston’s megastar. Dwight Howard was whisper quiet, with five points (on 6 shots) in his 34:34.

The Jazz got big-time performances from both Favors and Gordon Hayward.

Favors was brilliant defensively, both in space and in the paint. The Rockets shot just 36 percent at the rim with Favors around, which was enormous for Utah in a game where Gobert was only protecting the restricted area for 23 minutes. Favors also recovered from his own bad-shooting start – his usually reliable 15 to 18 foot pick and pop shot abandoned him early – to score 17 points. He was also able to bully Houston’s smaller lineups by dominating on the glass (15 boards) and had four assists and three blocks.

Hayward wound up with a typical Swiss-army-knife line of 22 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals. Houston got stuck in the penalty early, so Hayward forced the issue by squeezing his way into the paint and earning trips to the free throw line. Thanks in large part to the free throw line, he had 10 points in the fourth quarter alone.

He also checked Harden down the stretch, and his steal on an entry pass for the All-Star at 85-85 with 43 seconds left gave Utah the chance to get in the driver’s seat. They did, when – you guessed it – Hayward drew a Dwight Howard foul and sunk two free throws.

Harden and Howard answered quickly by connecting on a cutting dunk play for Dwight, and then Utah attacked without a timeout. At first, Hood had nowhere to go on an isolation play out front, bottled up by Harden. But Hayward brought a screen to send Hood down the middle, and when Howard came up to help, Favors was left alone for what would prove to be the game-clinching slam.

Jason Terry and JB Bickerstaff complained that Favors stepped on the end line as he made his reception, but the refs didn’t see it and there was no trigger for review, so his bucket stood. Harden had a chance to win with a catch-and-shoot three, but he didn’t convert this time in the face of defensive pressure from Hood and Trevor Booker, who also had a great game while getting extra run due to Gobert’s struggles. (Booker had 10, along with four assists.)

The win moved Utah into Houston’s playoff spot, and the Rockets dropped all the way to ninth. (Hey, we weren’t kidding when we said it was a play-in game.) It gives Utah a one-game buffer over the Rockets in the loss column and, combined with Dallas’ loss in Portland, ties them for seventh place, just one loss behind Portland.

The win also evened the Jazz-Rox season series, but when you look at secondary tiebreakers, that really couldn’t matter less. Both clubs currently have 22 conference losses, but Utah has games left against the Dubs, Spurs, Thunder and Clips. Most of Houston’s toughest remaining games are against Eastern Conference teams, so it’s very unlikely Utah will finish ahead of Houston in that tiebreaker. The next tiebreaker down is record against playoff teams in the conference. Houston’s lead is so strong there that the only way the Jazz can claim that tiebreaker is if they sweep those four games against the powerhouses AND Houston loses to OKC.

So tonight wasn’t really about tiebreakers. In just about any scenario, Houston has the tiebreaker locked up against Utah. For Utah, this was about winning a game that might help render that tiebreaker scenario moot altogether. Just as importantly, it was about picking up an unexpected win to keep Dallas in the rear view mirror.

Of the four teams, Dallas’s remaining schedule is the toughest by far. Their remaining opponents have an average record of .542, while the other three teams all face opponents that are below .500 on average. Dallas is also the only team in the group who has to make up a road game deficit – 7 of their final 11 will be outside the Big D.

So even if Utah struggles to fend off Houston without the aid of the tiebreaker, they might have bolstered their chances at keeping one of those two teams on their back.

Either way, it was a fun night for a little mini-bracket of playoff hopefuls. And the good news is: it has sequels. Houston visits Dallas on April 6, then the Mavs visit Salt Lake City on April 11, the next two chapters in the Western Conference’s great playoff race.

Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team’s Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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