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Game Day: Rockets At Jazz

Analysis and observations from Houston’s 109-103 loss to the Utah Jazz

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s 109-103 loss to the Utah Jazz:

POST-GAME

The NBA season is filled with peaks and valleys. Every club’s campaign has an ebb and flow of its own, combining periods of rapid growth and ascent with backsliding stretches that occasionally appear to at least temporarily stunt all of the progress that’s been made.

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And sometimes, during the wildest of swings, those diametrically disjointed intervals occur all within the span of a mere 48 hours.

Such is the tale of the Rockets these days after the club reached the highest of highs with its rousing Saturday night win in San Antonio only to hit the lowest of lows tonight by dropping a game to a young Utah team that entered the contest owning the worst record in the NBA.

To be sure, the Jazz played nothing like their record indicated they might Monday evening. Rookie point guard Trey Burke looked like a poised veteran right from the opening tip, dissecting Houston’s porous perimeter defense while setting his career-high in scoring (21 points) for the second consecutive game. Gordon Hayward, who came in lugging around the burden that comes with being mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, broke loose in the biggest of ways, knocking down 12-of-18 shots to rack up 29 points of his own. Together, those two players carried the Jazz offensively from start to finish while teaming up to spoil one Rockets’ rally after another. They formed a terrific tandem, and Alec Burks and Derrick Favors delivered myriad massive, game-changing plays down the stretch as well. Full credit must be given, regardless of Utah’s record coming into the proceedings.

And yet, the Rockets will rightfully be forced to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and lament their own shortcomings that conspired to bring about such a fall from grace. In particular, Houston’s lackluster start set the tone, burying the team in a big hole early while simultaneously serving to bolster the confidence of a Utah team that has often found itself in short supply of basketball bravado.

So often an inordinate amount of attention is focused on how a game finishes and, to be sure, the Rockets had their opportunities to steal this one late. But let there be no doubt: Houston lost this game in the first quarter, not the fourth. A Jazz team that came in ranked 27th in the NBA in offensive efficiency rang up 36 points in the opening period as Hayward and Burke combined to contribute 27 of those on 11-of-13 shooting. Houston’s defense – which had climbed all the way to 9th in the league by the start of the contest – looked to be a step slow both physically and mentally. That’s a good way to ensure yourself a fairly flirtatious evening with disaster against any NBA team – especially when on the road in enemy territory.

And though the club’s defensive effort improved, especially during the second quarter when the Rockets momentarily rallied to briefly take the lead, the damage had already been done. Utah never really cooled off, as seen by the Jazz’s 10-of-17 mark from beyond the arc – this from a team ranked 28th in the league in 3-point percentage. Here again, a tip of the cap must be given. In several situations Houston’s defense was plenty good enough; Utah’s players just hit tough shots. It happens. This is, after all, the NBA. But take care of your business in the first quarter and you greatly increase the odds that you won’t have to fuss and fret over high degree-of-difficulty makes later on.

There were, it should be noted, several bright spots for Houston: James Harden recorded a season-high 37 points, and both Omri Casspi and Aaron Brooks made big plays off the bench. Patrick Beverley’s third quarter chase-down swat of a Burke layup attempt was a thing of beauty. But as is always the case, the brightness of such exploits dims beneath the darkness of defeat.

This was Houston at its worst, just two days after showing off its very best. The manic nature of these two results only serves to hammer home why NBA coaches stand at their pulpit and preach the importance of perpetually maintaining an even keel. The Rockets’ win in San Antonio did not guarantee them a parade in June, just as tonight’s setback does not doom them to postseason heartbreak. There are lessons to be learned from both. Nights like tonight, however, should prove to make the primary truths clearer than ever: There remains much more work to be done, and sometimes how you start can be just as important as how you finish.

QUOTES

Kevin McHale

On getting behind early

“It was a bad start. (We) came out and had a bad energy level. We just weren’t ready to play. They got a big lead. We kind of fought back a few times and tried to take it from them, but they gained a lot of confidence and they made some big shots. We could never get our hands back on the game.”

On not having Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin

“We had plenty of guys to win this game today. It had nothing to do with who wasn’t there. It’s the guys who were here and how they played.”

On Gordon Hayward

“He played very well.”

On whether his team took Utah lightly

“No. We didn’t play well. They played better than we did.”

James Harden – Guard (37 points, 8 assists)

On the game

“We just didn’t defend. We go through mental lapses where we don’t lock down on the defensive end. Give up to many points and try to fight our way back.”

On guarding Gordon Hayward

“He was the key. That first quarter, I think he had 17 points, but throughout the last three quarters, he slowed down. Like I said, the reason was the first quarter.”

On overcoming the deficit

“Guys played a lot of minutes, especially with this altitude. We just didn’t get it done. If we would have played any better in that first quarter, different outcome.”

Aaron Brooks – Guard (13 points, 2 assists)

On the Jazz

“It is the NBA, everybody can play. They’ve been struggling. They got their captain, general back so they are playing good basketball. They have won three of their last four. We came in and didn’t get off to a good start. Fighting uphill the whole game.”

On the season so far

“The squad could be really, really good. We had some mental lapses. We had a lot of injuries. I think despite everything, we have been battling. This one hurts though. As good as it feels to beat San Antonio in San Antonio, this one feels just as worse.”

Tyrone Corbin – Utah Head Coach

On the game

“Our energy and the focus with the guys (made me happiest). I thought the coaches did a great job with the scouting report and the guys implemented it very well for the most part. We came out with a lot of energy. We had the little lull in the end of the first, beginning of the second quarter. But after we got the guys back on the floor and got our composure. I thought they executed very well.”

On the play of Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward

“The greatest thing about it was they made plays for their teammates. They came off and when their shot was there, they made shots. But they attacked and were able to get everybody involved, and it threw (Houston) off a little bit. As we continue to grow as a group of guys here and see what we get in different situations, if we share the ball the way we did tonight, we will continue to grow.”

Alec Burks – Guard (21 points, 3 rebounds)

On the game

“It was fun. We got the win and that’s all that matters.”

On if it meant more to contribute to the win

“It feels great. The hard work paid off and I made some shots and that’s what I want.”

Trey Burke – Guard (21 points, 6 assists)

On his play tonight

“I think that’s just the players having confidence in me, the coaches and me just taking what the defense is giving me, not forcing anything but making the right plays. If someone is open hitting them, if I have the five-foot jump shot making that play right there. It’s all just a feel, but I’m continuing to learn and get better at it.”

On learning on the fly

“It’s a lot coming at me. It was a lot coming at me at the beginning of the year, with all the plays. But as a young guy in this league, especially at the point guard, you have to be able to soak all the information in and apply it on the court and I think the players and the whole coaching staff is doing a great job of helping me do that.”

Gordon Hayward – Forward (29 points, 5 rebounds)

On the game

“It was important for us to get that win. We let the other one slip like we talked about this morning, so it came down to the wire, we had a lead and we let it go and I think it shows the growth of our team to stay poised, stay calm and still win a basketball game.”

On what he was most happy about within this win

“I think I was happy with our poise. Early in the season we would have let this one go and so it was good for us to pick up this win. We shared the basketball. The play that comes to mind is Trey (Burke) drew like three people, kicked to me and I kicked to Marvin and he hit the three and put us up eight and that’s huge. That’s just sharing the basketball, that’s guys having fun, that’s just winning basketball. It’s good for us to get this win. ”

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (13-5) at Utah Jazz (3-15) at

Point Differential:

Utah: -9.7 (NBA rank: 30th)

Houston: +6.7 (NBA rank: 4th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Utah: 94.8 (27th)

Houston: 109.3 (2nd)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Utah: 106.8 (30th)

Houston: 100.7 (9th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Utah: 94.05 (27th)

Houston: 99.33 (5th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Utah: 46.1% (26th)

Houston: 55.6% (2nd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Utah: 18.0 (29th)

Houston: 18.5 (30th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Utah: 48.5% (25th); offensive rebound rate: 27.6% (8th); defensive rebound rate: 71.9% (30th)

Houston: 53.5% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 27.8% (7th); defensive rebound rate: 73.2% (25th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Utah: .29 (13th)

Houston: .428 (1st)

Both teams enter tonight’s contest playing their best basketball of the young season, though that of course means something completely different for two clubs that currently find themselves at very different stages of the NBA’s developmental curve. The Jazz have been bolstered by the return of rookie Trey Burke, who missed Utah’s first 12 games while recovering from a bone fracture he sustained during the preseason. He’s solidified their point guard situation which had been a glaring weakness in his absence and though he, like all first-year players, still has so very much to learn, he’s already stepped in and made key plays that have helped lift the Jazz to two wins in their last three games; this, after Utah started the season by losing 15 of 16.

The Rockets, meanwhile, are riding high on the heels of their stirring, signature win over San Antonio Saturday night. Simply put, Houston is one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now, having won five in a row and eight of its last nine games. That this scorching stretch occurred right around the time the Rockets inserted Terrence Jones into the starting lineup is no coincidence; Houston’s point differential since the second-year forward joined the starting five is a whopping +10.1 and the club’s offensive rating during that time is a sizzling 113.6 – a mark that would lead the league by a significant margin. As it is, the Rockets’ rank second in the NBA in offensive efficiency – just a tenth of a percentage point behind league leading Miami – and are one of only four teams to boast both a top-10 ranked offense and defense (the Heat, Thunder and Spurs are the others).

All that having been said, Houston ought to know better than to overlook tonight’s opponent. When these two old rivals met each other exactly a month ago, the Rockets found themselves in a 16-point halftime hole after getting outrebounded 27-12 and getting outscored 16-0 in terms of second-chance points, hinting at Houston’s defensive rebounding bugaboo that lingered for much of the season’s opening month. The Rockets ultimately recovered en route to recording their biggest comeback win of the season, but suffice to say they would rather not have to rely on performing an encore of their Houdini act this time around.

Know Thy Enemy

- The Jazz come into tonight’s matchup ranked a lowly 28th overall in 3-point percentage, having hit just 30.8 percent of their attempts from downtown. It should come as no surprise, then, that Utah’s two most recent wins each saw them knock down better than 40 percent of their 3s. To that end, Houston will need to keep a close eye on Burke and, especially, Marvin Williams. The ninth-year forward is the only Jazz player connecting at a clip of better than 40 percent (or anywhere even remotely close to that mark, actually) from beyond the arc. The best way for heavy underdogs to increase the variance and give themselves an opportunity to shock the world is to catch fire from deep, so Houston will want to keep tabs on Utah’s perimeter threats to ensure the Jazz don’t collect the kindling necessary to spark any sort of upset bid.

- Utah’s other means of attempting to tip the win probability scales more in their favor: securing extra possessions by way of attempting to hammer Houston on the offensive boards. The Jazz successfully attacked the Rockets’ Achilles heel for the first half of their November 2 meeting; Enes Kanter was especially destructive in that regard while corralling five offensive rebounds and racking up 14 points during the opening two periods of play. Utah, in fact, boasts four frontcourt players possessing offensive rebound rates that are well above average: the aforementioned Kanter, Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans and Rudy Gobert. The Rockets have been better protecting the defensive glass of late and Houston has grabbed defensive rebounds at a top-10 rate whenever Omer Asik has been on the floor this season, but this remains a major point of emphasis and tonight’s contest will surely test the recent progress the Rockets have made in that area.

In the spotlight

Chandler Parsons will be a game-time decision tonight due to his bout with recurring back spasms – an ailment, by the way, that has plagued him ever since Houston played in Portland nearly a month ago. But what a month it’s been, all the same. The third-year player averaged better than 17 points and five rebounds per game in November while chipping in four assists and a steal per contest as well. It’s perhaps his shooting numbers that stand out the most, however, with Parsons draining 54 percent of his shots from the field and better than 40 percent of his 3-point bombs during the penultimate month of the calendar year. Oh, and the last time the Florida native played in Salt Lake City he scored 20 points in the first half en route to ending the evening by leading the Rockets in scoring (24), rebounding (12) and assists (6).

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.