HOUSTON — The desperate 36-footer by Donovan Mitchell sailed over the backboard, a miserable moment that epitomized the Utah Jazz‘s offensive woes in their 122-90 Game 1 loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday night.
Mitchell had no choice but to toss up a prayer after receiving a pass so far from the basket just before the expiration of the shot clock, which was pelted with the errant shot. The Rockets’ aggressive defense had snuffed out every action the Jazz attempted on the possession, a theme throughout the night.
“Their physicality defensively disrupted us,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “The ball stopped and got stuck on one side of the floor. We just have to be more determined in those situations.”
The Rockets held the Jazz to 39 percent shooting from the floor (7-of-27 from 3-point range) and forced 18 turnovers in the rout. It was the kind of dominant defensive performance that gives the Rockets, a historically elite offensive team, confidence that they are legitimate title contenders.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we can defend,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “At all.”
The Rockets, one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams during the first half of the season, have excelled on that end since the All-Star break. Only Utah ranked above Houston in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break, as the Rockets allowed only 105.3 points per possession during that span, a major factor in the Rockets’ league-best 20-5 finish.
“That’s what we have to do,” said Rockets superstar James Harden, who had game highs of 29 points and 10 assists. “That’s how we have to play defensively. We have to be aggressive. We have to disrupt their routes and their plays and things they like to do and make sure that they’re not comfortable. If we don’t do that, we don’t have a chance. Defensively, we’ve been locked in these last couple of months.”
Reserve guard Austin Rivers raised some eyebrows after a March 28 rout of the Denver Nuggets when he declared that the Rockets would win a championship if they continued to play elite defense. But that’s a belief held throughout the Houston locker room.
“That’s something that we always emphasize,” said forward PJ Tucker, the Rockets’ best defender. “When we’re aggressive as a team, our defense goes to another level. We’re being physical on box-offs, on all the switches, and we’re being aggressive and getting up into people, making them drive. When you do that, it puts pressure on the offense to try to make the right plays.”
The Jazz repeatedly made poor decisions under duress or had to settle for low-percentage shots in Game 1. With Eric Gordon as his primary defender, Utah go-to guy Donovan Mitchell had a particularly tough night, finishing with 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting with no assists and five turnovers.
“It’s one game and you have to learn from it, but I can’t have no assists and five turnovers,” Mitchell said. “I don’t care how many minutes you play or whatever. If you get five turnovers, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and figure out how to adjust.”