The Houston Rockets are an offensive juggernaut, led by a runaway MVP in James Harden. When that offense is clicking, there is very little that any other team in the league can do to slow them down, let alone stop them.
There are a few things Utah can do to make Harden and the Rockets a little more uncomfortable, which will give them a chance to even the series at 1-1. Houston failed to crack the 100 point mark 8 times in the 2017-18 season, winning 3 of those games and losing 5. So obviously, holding the Rockets under 100 is probably the best way to beat them. But that’s much, much easier said than done.
3-point shooting. Houston lost 17 games in the regular season. They failed to shoot 38% from deep in all but 2 of those games. In both of those losses (to the Lakers and Clippers), the Rockets opponents shot a better percentage from downtown. Limiting Houston’s success from outside gives any opponent a much better shot at pulling out a win. Force Harden and Chris Paul to drive. Get right up on them with good defensive positioning (to avoid those utterly ridiculous foul calls via epic flopping), and make them beat you off the dribble. 3 > 2. If they’re taking shots inside the arc, the math starts to favor your defense.
Keeping Houston’s role players in check. Harden is going to get his. You can’t stop him. You can force him into uncomfortable situations, make him work hard for his points, make him earn it. But for any chance at a win, the Jazz simply can’t allow a guy like Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute to beat them. During the regular season, when Ariza scored 15+ points, Houston was 15-5. When Mbah a Moute scored double-digits, Houston was a staggering 17-1. When Clint Capela scored 16+ points, Houston was a ridiculous 24-1. The best gameplan may be to just let Harden and Chris Paul each go off for 35, and lock down on the rest of the team, limiting their effectiveness.
Getting back on defense. In their 17 losses, Houston’s opponent grabbed more than 10 offensive rebounds just twice, with one of those games being vs the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are an absurdly good offensive rebounding team thanks to the services of Steven Adams. Offensive rebounds are not the way to beat this team, especially when Clint Capela sprints down the court after every defensive rebound. Gobert got beat down the floor quite a few times in game 1, giving up easy points. Houston was the NBA’s #1 team in transition scoring during the regular season. They haven’t been quite as prolific in the postseason so far, but they definitely made Utah pay in game 1. Look for Utah to run back on defense in transition.
Bench production. Utah’s bench has been pretty awful in the playoffs so far. Dante Exum in particular has just ... disappeared. Jae Crowder has played tough defense and hustled for loose balls, but his shot hasn’t been falling. Alec Burks has had nice moments offensively, but the consistency needs to be there. Jonas Jerebko has been surprisingly ineffective. Someone on Utah’s bench needs to figure out how to score, pass, and attack the rim. If two bench players score in double digits, Utah probably wins.
Law of averages. At some point (hopefully), shooting averages will even out. In game 1, Houston shot 53% from 3-point range, while Utah shot just 32%. If both teams shoot closer to their respective averages in game 2 (Utah actually shot a slightly higher percentage than Houston from outside during the regular season), Utah should be right in the game. If Utah shoots better than 40% from 3, they’ll win game 2.
It’s the 2nd round of the playoffs. CP3 and Harden have become infamous for coming up short at this point in the postseason. Playoff basketball means tough, physical defense and (hopefully) more lenient refs who are more hesitant to call ticky-tack fouls. Though that’s a tall order when we’re talking about James Harden. Hell, just put Joe Ingles on Harden for 48 minutes until he implodes from frustration and confusion. It worked against Playoff P, after all.