HOUSTON -- While it certainly factored into the sluggish start that greased the skids to their demise in Game 1, the Utah Jazz were inundated with a number of causes behind their loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday in addition to the absence of starting point guard Ricky Rubio.
Defensively, the Jazz were overrun by the Rockets' exceptional 3-point shooting (17 for 32) and victimized early by some leaky transition defense. Rockets guard James Harden again tormented the Utah defense, cashing in seven 3s en route to a game-high 41 points, and the Jazz lacked energy in the first half following a short turnaround from the completion of their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder less than 48 hours prior to tipoff.
But the Jazz clearly missed Rubio, despite recording 20 assists on 38 field goals. While rookie guard Donovan Mitchell and veteran swingman Joe Ingles produced five assists each, and Utah received steady play from guards Dante Exum and Alec Burks off the bench, the Jazz didn't quite have that same verve that Rubio provides with his ball-handling skill and passing acumen.
"I think it makes Donovan handle the ball more than they would like," said Rockets forward Trevor Ariza, who drew the primary defensive assignment on Mitchell. "He's their dominant scorer at this point so when he has to handle the ball and get everybody involved in the game, it kind of takes away from him scoring the ball all the time or being aggressive all the time."
The Jazz also missed the defensive presence of center Rudy Gobert, despite the fact that Gobert logged 35 minutes in the 110-96 loss. A Defensive Player of the Year candidate and league leader by a healthy margin in defensive real plus-minus, Gobert was a non-factor on that end, failing to record a block for the first time this postseason and just the eighth time overall.
Gobert averaged 2.3 blocks and ranked second in the NBA in block percentage (6.0), yet the Rockets had success attacking the rim with Gobert stationed there to defend it, shooting 8 of 9 with Gobert within three feet of the rim. The key to their success? Doing what comes naturally.
"We just try to be us as much as possible," Rockets guard Chris Paul said. "I think James said it after last game: We've seen just about every defense you can have this past season, so if they switch, we adjust. If you back (up to protect the rim), we adjust. We just keep playing."
Utah, conversely, can't afford to maintain the status quo. The Rockets rode robust shooting to a 27-point, first-half lead and continued to exploit a Jazz defense that has stifled almost every other opponent. Harden averaged 34.3 points on 55.4 percent shooting against Utah during the season and looked alarmingly at ease attacking the Jazz off the dribble and from the perimeter.
Rubio, out with a left hamstring strain, won't be available to save the Jazz on offense. Defensively, Utah understands exactly what is required to ensure a superior performance.
"It takes all five guys on the court communicating, that's for sure," Jazz forward Jae Crowder said. "But you have to accept it. So, if they're cross-matching and they're running back you just got to demand the guy (to defend in transition) and stick with him for that possession and work it out. And that causes every guy on the court to know each guy's tendencies and what he likes to do.
"So, you have to communicate on the court very well in the situation that we're putting ourselves, which is in transition and working itself out in the half court and getting these guys in front of us and making it as tough as possible."