Overmatched. Out of the race. Might as well not show up. Not as talented. Lacking experience. No stars. No point guard? No chance. No offense. Done in 4.
The Utah Jazz—the perennial underdog—have heard this all year. They’ve been playing playoff games since January when their season was on the line. They’ve played one guy down to injury all 82. Utah’s been in elimination games since after All Star break. They once again surprised everyone by winning game two 116-108. This time without their starting point guard in a game where their leading scorer went 6 for 21 and their backups who played very little minutes January through April went bananas.
A lot of people will be rolling with the narrative that the Rockets didn’t show up. That they gave the game up like it was a gift to be given rather than a trophy to be taken. Chris Paul is not going to be one of those people.
“Give them a lot of credit,” said Chris Paul. “They came here and got a win.”
That they did. The Utah Jazz came out of the gates hotter than a pistol lead by Joe Ingles who was raining down fire from beyond the three point line. His shooting was so on point it would make Daryl Morey blush. Joe Ingles would finish the game with 27 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists while shooting 10-13 and making 7 of 9 from three.
Donovan Mitchell, the Spida-man, did his best transformer impression and morphed into an All Star point guard. Donovan Mitchell lead the way in the first quarter with five assists. While Donovan didn’t have it going with his shot, Mitchell took full advantage of his gravity by making the right pass. Donovan got into foul trouble in the 2nd quarter and miraculously escaped getting his 4th foul despite playing with three fouls in that quarter.
With all of the foul trouble, Quin Snyder was forced to go to Dante Exum and Alec Burks for major minutes. In any regular season, this pairing would have spelled defeat for Utah, so of course in the playoffs these two led the way. Alec Burks played this game every bit like the twelve million dollar player he is. He finished with 17 points on 7 of 11 shooting while getting to the line three times. He also was a masterful distributor finishing with 6 assists. Alec Burks was cutting to the rim, finishing well, and playing with speed and aggression. Alec Burks frenetic energy was perfect against this Rockets team.
Meanwhile Dante Exum who had a very troublesome Oklahoma City Thunder series has suddenly turned into a potent defender against Chris Paul and James Harden. While Dante Exum’s numbers may look pedestrian—9 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists—Dante Exum was in Harden’s grill all game. He drew fouls on Harden, frustrated the possible MVP, and was a factor in every one of his misses when he was on the court. Even more miraculously, Dante Exum got a good whistle. Dante Exum’s defense came down to never trying to go for the steal. He stood his ground, played physical, and made a huge impact on the game.
This might have been Dante Exum’s best game in his career. He has played more minutes in games and he has even scored many more points. But this game, against the best team in the NBA under the bright lights of the playoffs on national television, he frustrated the guy who most likely will be the future MVP. He got into his head. He played every bit like the player the Jazz thought they were drafting four years ago.
Jae Crowder played remarkable defense and was the stretch four of Utah’s dreams tonight. He scored 15 points while going 5 for 10 from the field, 3 of 6 from three, and pulled down 10 rebounds. He was everywhere. He was challenging PJ Tucker and James Harden’s fake tough guy act. He was boxing out down low on Capela. He was remarkable.
Meanwhile for Houston, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela all got theirs. Harden scored 32 points but was 9 of 22 from the field. Harden got to the line 11 times in the first half alone, a couple times on some dubious fouls--ya know, the true Harden way. But then in the second half, Utah did a great job defending him while not fouling. Chris Paul had 23 points on 8 of 19 shooting. Clint Capela had 31 points and 11 rebounds. But beyond that ... the results were spotty.
Harden was turned into more of a facilitator and his teammates were not hitting shots. PJ Tucker was 1 for 5 from three, Trevor Ariza was 1 for 4, Luc Mbah a Moute was 0 for 2, Ryan Anderson was 0 for 2, and Chris Paul was 2 for 5. In a nightmarish turn of events for Houston their role players were disappearing at home, and the Utah Jazz’s defense was playing the part of Thanos.
If you’re Houston, this is a game that’s hard to adjust to. While Utah used Donovan as a facilitator and it worked masterfully, if Houston reacts to widely to that result it opens game three to a Donovan Mitchell explosion in Salt Lake City. If they play the same strategy at home, they run the risk of Utah’s role players continuing to play incredibly well in front of a raucous Utah home crowd. Houston was not loud in terms of crowd noise. Utah is going to be a hornet’s nest.
Is Houston the better team in this series? Yes. But that doesn’t mean much to Utah who hasn’t seen a team that they couldn’t beat when they were disciplined and playing as a team—unless you’re the Atlanta Hawks. But they’re not *markedly* better than Utah. Utah is one of the hottest teams in the NBA and that has continued into the playoffs.
Tonight’s win also is going to open this series to another X-factor: Ricky Rubio. The initial diagnosis on Rubio’s injury was he would be out about 10 days. That meant that Utah had to win at least one game to get to a Rubio return. If the Utah Jazz win two games then the Jazz get Rubio back when the series is basically a best of three games. In other words, tonight’s win might not have just extended this series to five games, but to seven. That’s a nightmare scenario for Houston.
Houston is going to start hearing the stories of the Utah Jazz in past playoff histories. There’s Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Clyde Drexler. The Utah Jazz upended their dreams of getting to the NBA Finals or even the second round starting in 1996-1997. The Jazz have been the Ghosts of NBA Playoffs past for the Houston Rockets.
For the Utah Jazz, this was just another game as the underdog. The Utah Jazz shocked everyone, but they didn’t shock themselves.
The strength of their team is the team.