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Utah Jazz among bad company after dropping 1st two playoff games by 20+ points

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Has an NBA team come back to win 1st round series after losing two games by 20+ points?

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets have dominated this NBA Playoff series from the opening tip. They have won the first two games in this series by 20 or more points. The Utah Jazz find themselves in some very unfavorable territory. The few silver linings for the Utah Jazz in this series appear more like nickel plating than bonafide silver. There have not been many NBA teams that find themselves in the same situation as Utah does right now.

Since 1948, there have only been eight teams that have lost their first two games in the 1st round by 20+ points or more prior to this season. Worse yet, five of those teams would go on to be swept. It’s not an enviable situation in which the Utah Jazz find themselves, but there’s some hope. There actually has been a team that very recently was able to come back in the series to win despite getting the doors blown off of them in the first two games. That team? The 2015-2016 Portland Trail Blazers.

Lost 1st two games by 20+ pts - 1st Round

Team First Last Games End Result Come Back? Sweep Record
Team First Last Games End Result Come Back? Sweep Record
San Antonio Spurs 1985-04-28 1986-04-23 4 0-3 No Yes 35-47
St. Louis Bombers 1948-04-03 1949-03-22 3 0-2 No Yes 29-31
New York Knicks 1988-04-29 1988-05-01 2 1-3 No No 38-44
Miami Heat 1996-04-28 1996-05-01 2 0-3 No Yes 42-40
Detroit Pistons 1999-05-08 1999-05-10 2 2-3 No No 29-21
Miami Heat 2001-04-21 2001-04-23 2 0-3 No Yes 50-32
Memphis Grizzlies 2016-04-17 2016-04-19 2 0-4 No Yes 42-40
Portland Trail Blazers 2016-04-17 2016-04-20 2 4-2 Yes No 44-38
Detroit Pistons 2019-04-14 2019-04-17 2 ? ? ? 41-41
Utah Jazz 2019-04-14 2019-04-17 2 ? ? ? 50-32

The Portland Trail Blazers went down 0-2 in the series after suffering humiliating losses by 20 and 21 points. A combination of suffocating defense on Lillard and McCollum combined with the Trail Blazers’ role players being able to take advantage of open looks resulted in the meltdown. The Blazers would return home and punch back led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Most importantly, the Trail Blazers received some much needed support from their role players. In Game 4, Al-Farouq Aminu came out of nowhere to score 30 points. Portland had evened the series with it going back Los Angeles tied.

Now that’s about as far as Utah can use that series as a template for not giving up because the Trail Blazers caught a break by the Clippers getting a bad break. Chris Paul broke his hand at the end of Game 4. Blake Griffin would be lost for the rest of the series after Game 4 as well. The Trail Blazers would win the next two games and go on to the second round.

So what can Utah do without having to rely on the basketball gods smiting down the Houston Rockets? They may have to follow James Harden blueprint for improvement and apply it to Donovan Mitchell, but this is the type of improvement that happens over years not days.

Dennis Lindsey says that Utah uses Rudy Gobert as the trigger to their offense. He initiates everything by the screen, but that same screen is inviting something else. Zach Lowe talked about it today in his piece about James Harden achieving basketball sentience.

The next step was more radical: eliminate the need for a screen altogether. “We used to talk about the screen as an escort for a double-team,” Morey says. “Why even give the defense the option?”

Harden was already a very good isolation player, but he would have to stretch the math beyond what anyone had dreamed possible to render the pick-and-roll -- basketball’s staple play almost since the peach basket -- obsolete. Enter the step-back 3 -- an isolation worth three points if it goes in, which it has about 40 percent of the time this season.

Teams are playing Donovan Mitchell very similarly. They are double teaming him on the pick and roll. But as I mentioned earlier ... this is an offseason regimen, not a three day adjustment.

Another way of improvement also includes Utah’s sophomore phenom. Unfortunately this is an adjustment he can make, but has failed to make. As Utah has climbed on Harden’s shoulder—and become the mockery of memes—to take away the stepback three and force him into either a lower percentage floater or uncomfortable pass, there’s been a missing cog to making it work. Donovan Mitchell’s help side defense has been lacking awareness. Donovan Mitchell’s insistence on sticking to his man has allowed James Harden to have a more direct pass. As Zach Lowe puts it:

This is a common theme: Mitchell has been awful on the help side. He fails to zone up when he should, and hangs in no man’s land when he needs to scramble to an open guy.

But aside from putting band-aids on a scheme that is significantly different than what Utah has done all season long, Utah is in a precarious situation. They’re trying to figure out how to guard something that only the Bucks with their one of a kind personnel have shown an ability to do. A damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Zach Lowe highlights how Utah is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

It is tempting to say Utah should abandon the “force Harden right” gimmick and defend him straight up. Both Rubio and Sefolosha showed glimpses of this in Game 2. But what does “straight up” even mean with Harden anymore? It would typically signify some sort of normal adjustment to pick-and-roll schemes -- a trap, or a hard hedge.

But what is the adjustment when there is no pick? Maybe it is just playing Harden head-on, chest-to-chest. Will that accomplish anything? Will it make it any easier to stay in front of him? Probably not.

Much like the Portland Trail Blazers in 2016, Utah may be able to tie the series with some strong play from their role players at home, but they’ll need more help than just that. Portland got lucky with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leaving the series early with injuries. It doesn’t appear that Utah is going to get that same luck. They’re left to play the Rockets at full strength with a game plan that is falling apart. There’s always some hope for a miracle, but it doesn’t look likely.