NBA Playoffs: Jazz throw counterpunch, give Rockets reason to worry as series shifts to Utah

HOUSTON -- Well, well, well. Look at what we have here: A series.

Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised that the Utah Jazz, after getting stomped in Game 1, gave the Houston Rockets their own sort of beatdown in Wednesday's Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. After ending the regular season 29-6 -- the NBA's best team after the All-Star break -- and after dispensing with the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, we could have seen a big Jazz counterpunch coming. Quin Snyder's team is, when healthy, the NBA's best defense. And surely I don't have to remind you of prior playoff struggles from the Rockets' two stars, Chris Paul and James Harden.

And yet … how many people really thought the Jazz were going to make a series of this, especially after that Game 1 blowout? The Rockets have the NBA's most efficient offense, and one of the most high-powered offenses in history. The Rockets set an NBA record for three-point attempts, and this seemed an especially inauspicious number if you were a Jazz fan, seeing that Utah's dominant defense does not always extend out to the three-point line; the Jazz rank 20th in the NBA in defensive three-point percentage. Harden was an absolute maestro in Game 1. After the first 48 minutes of basketball, this series felt well on the way to becoming a prelude to a Western Conference finals matchup between the best regular-season team in the NBA (Houston) and the defending champs (Golden State).

What the Jazz did on Wednesday night felt emblematic of the culture of this franchise. It was a complete victory. A team victory. As their star rookie was having his struggles (Donovan Mitchell made only 6 of 21 shots for 17 points, though he paced the team with 11 assists as its primary point guard), the rest of the Jazz stepped up in a big way. Joe Ingles had a career-high 27 points and seven threes. 

Six Jazz players in total scored in double digits. Jae Crowder continued to hit threes, making three of his six attempts en route to 15 points. Rudy Gobert was active on both ends, netting 15 points and 14 rebounds; he had three blocks yet seemed to affect another dozen or so shots or more. Dante Exum played excellent perimeter defense on the league's presumptive MVP; while Harden did score 32 points, he did so on 2 of 10 three-point shooting. The Jazz came out firing, scoring 36 points in the first quarter despite scoring only 39 points in the first half of Game 1. And in the second half, as the Rockets were threatening, the Jazz went on a soul-crushing 16-2 run.

"I just don't think that we should even be in that situation," Trevor Ariza said afterward. "They came out with unbelievable energy and they played harder than we did. And we can't let that happen."

"We can't get down 19 no matter who we're playing," Harden said. "That's it."

"They were just too comfortable," Paul said. "They were getting layups, dunks, free throws, a little bit of everything. We fought back hard. But give them a lot of credit. They did what they were supposed to do. They came in here and got a win."

The question now is whether one win can turn into more than that. This series is heading back to Utah for Game 3. That's one of the biggest home-court advantages in the NBA -- the altitude and raucous fan base. This thing could spiral out of control quickly for Houston. Drop two road games and the Rockets will return home with all the echoes of failed playoffs past from Harden and from Paul.

It's too early to panic in Houston. But another game like Game 2 -- of lackadaisical defense, of comparatively low energy, of poor shooting -- and that panic meter starts inching skyward.

Rockets misfire from long range

Let's call it what it was: Houston's three-point defense was a big-time problem on Wednesday night. There were several moments where it bordered on embarrassing. Joe Ingles, who ranked fifth in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage this season, had a handful of insanely wide-open threes.

"They came out with some thrust in that first half and they made shots, but they were wide-open shots," Harden said. "We were just kind of going through the motions."

Added D'Antoni: "They made the shots that we kind of left them open."

Three-point shooting success was flipped from Game 1. In Game 1, the Rockets made 17 of 32 threes (53.1 percent) while the Jazz made 7 of 22 threes (31.8 percent). In Game 2, the Jazz made 15 of 32 threes (46.9 percent) while the Rockets made 10 of 37 threes (27 percent). The Jazz's 15 threes was a franchise record for a playoff game.

Dante peaks in Game 2

It won't show up in the box score, but the X factor in Wednesday's game was Jazz guard Dante Exum.

Exum scored nine points (including on one nasty dunk that reminded us of the 22-year-old's athletic gifts) in 18 minutes. But his intense perimeter defense, especially on Harden, set the tone for Utah's defensive domination of the NBA's most efficient offense.

"You can't put any one guy and hang that on one player," Snyder said of Exum's defense on Harden. "We said, 'Just try to make him work.' He had 21 in the first half, so he's still going to be able to be efficient and score. I think Dante has some size and some length and we've had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups."

Extra time off pays off for Jazz

An extra day of rest made a world of difference for the Jazz.

Sunday's Game 1 demolishment came when the Jazz were only 36 hours removed from an emotional series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But the Jazz had two days between Games 1 and 2. The rest as well as the time to make coaching adjustments against the Rockets propelled the Jazz to victory.

"They made adjustments," said Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute. "I know this coach [Quin Snyder], he is always going to make adjustments. So they made adjustments, especially on the pick and roll. They were slipping a lot because they know that we switch. So that created a lot of confusion. They were getting easy baskets."

Utah doesn't start slow again

The difference-maker in the game might have come right off the bat, when the Jazz outscored the Rockets in the first quarter, 36-28.

At the end of the first quarter of Game 1, the Rockets led by 13. At the end of the first quarter of Game 2, the Jazz led by 8.

"That to me was maybe the most important thing in the game," Snyder said. "To get off to a good start and play well and then you know they're going to come back. It's just a question of how far and how quickly, and I thought they cut that gap and not only made it a game, but basically took control of the game."

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