Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Houston, you have a problem- Jazz roll in Houston: Observations

It certainly looks like the Utah Jazz, the only playoff team in the Western Conference with a losing record on the road (17-24) in the regular season, have figured out how to win on the road.
Well, at least they have figured out how to beat the Rockets four straight times at Toyota Center (dating back to the regular season and Game 7 of last year's playoffs), and know how to beat a team without its starting, and best, point guard, and without its 7-6 giant Yao Ming, since February.
I don't want to dampen the significance of Utah's wins on Saturday and Monday, though. They certainly played very well. They played good team ball, both on the offensive and defensive sides, particularly in throwing multiple defenders at Tracy McGrady.

Guarding T-Mac
The Jazz's efficiency in guarding T-Mac just proves that outside of the star swingman, the Rockets have a less-than-stellar supporting cast. Simply said, Utah is exposing everybody not named Tracy. While he has had his share of problems in the series' first two games, shooting just 16-43 including 0-7 for one point in the two fourth quarters, Houston's other players have failed to step up. Maybe it would be different with Alston, who would be more capable to step up when T-Mac gets harrassed on the perimeter, be it by Ronnie Brewer, AK47, Korver or Harpring.
Speaking of the 'Big 4' who have the task of guarding the star, I have been particularly impressed with Brewer being able to stick to him for the most part, despite being a young player in just his second year. AK is a better off-the-ball than on-the-ball defender, but has done impressive work. And I love the way Harpring meets McGrady early when he gets the ball and at least tries to keep T-Mac from going where he wants.
Korver is not a great defender, but as a fourth option to defend McGrady, it gives a different defensive look that keeps the Rockets and McGrady guessing. It's a really nice element, and good to know that the Jazz have at least slow-down perimeter defenders.
T-Mac is averaging 21.5 points per game, but is shooting sub-40% in the process, and his average is 7.3 points lower than his career playoff average, proof that the Jazz are doing a fine job defending him.

Rockets' red glare
Game 2 was evidence that Houston intended to be more physical with Utah from the get-go. It looked like they were trying to turn the tables after being out-physicalled particularly at the start of Game 1, where the Jazz where able to seize control of a game they relinquished for only the start of the third quarter.
I mean, we've got backup rookie point guard Aaron Brooks flailing his elbow into Deron Williams' side on a pick, Battier roughing up Kirilenko, and Luis Scola picking on just about everybody.
Too bad Scola's dirty play hurt the Rockets.
His push of Andrei late in the game, right before Bobby Jackson hit the would-be game-tying three, was the biggest factor in the game. Scola may have scored 14 points, but absolutely killed the Rockets with his bonehead push at the end.

The rest of the Rockets
Surprising was the play of Shane Battier in Game 1, when he scored a quiet 22 points on perfect 7-7 shooting, including 4-4 from the three-point line, and also 4-4 from the charity stripe to boot. He in fact nearly matched Andrei Kirilenko's fabulous Game 1 performance, where AK scored 21 points, grabbed four rebounds, had three assists and made life difficult for Houston's star. But Battier was held to 3-7 shooting in the second game. Kirilenko may have shot 1-8 himself, but unlike Battier made himself useful in other aspects of the game, including grabbing eight boards, dishing three more assists and again, making life difficult for Houston's star.
That's the difference between the two teams' small forwards. Where Battier can only help his team if his outside shots are falling, AK can help the Jazz in a variety of ways even if his shot's aren't going down.
Bobby Jackson failed to fill the role left glaringly vacant by Alston, shooting 3-15 in Game 1. He did better in Game 2, as did his temporary backup Aaron Brooks, shooting 7-17, but failed to come through in the end. With his team down three with 4:23 left, he missed back-to-back free throws, then let D-Will score a crafty layup on the other end, before missing two more shots down the stretch. Come to think of it, D-Will frankly took the game over while being guarded by Jackson, scoring four of Utah's last seven field goals. The shot Jackson actually knocked down was negated by Scola's foul.
Then there's Scola, who had a nice Game 1 with 14 points and 13 rebounds but only grabbed four boards in Game 2. He certainly is scrappy, but he is dirty, and it hurt and exposed Houston in Game 2.

Utah's team play: Jazz makin' sweet music
The team play demonstrated by the Jazz was phenomenal over the three days. I mean, AK was the leading scorer for Game 1! The ball was distributed evenly in both games. Players that struggled offensively in Game 1 turned it around in Game 2: Mehmet Okur followed a four-point outing with 16- but even more importantly, 16 rebounds; Ronnie Brewer followed a goose egg with 10 on an efficient 5-9 shooting. Conversely, Kyle Korver went from 11 to 7; Kirilenko, 21 to 3. Carlos Boozer, 20 to 13. Simply said, this club is so team-oriented, that it doesn't matter who has the big night with regards to putting the ball in the hole.
Then you've got a play that many would call lucky, but others would say good teams will to happen: Utah's up three with less than a half-minute left in the contest. D-Will finds Korver on the wing. Kyle drives baseline, and with time running down on the shot clock, fires an awkward turnaround that goes off the side of the backboard. But of course, the ever-active Russian Rifle Kirilenko finds the rebounds, and with not even two seconds left on the shot clock and with his back turned back to the basket, quickly flips the rock back to Korver, who buries both the shot and the Rockets' hopes with one hand. Swoosh. Jazz 2, Rockets 0.
Those sorts of plays are not luck. Rather, they are made by teams that are hustling, active, aware and cognizant of the situation in the game. Great teams make those sorts of plays.

Working 8-to-5
Williams has obviously been a stud in the series so far, averaging 21 points and 7.5 assists per game. Early in Game 2, he bailed out a somewhat-stagnant Jazz offense by nailing three straight three-pointers in the first quarter. He also largely took over the last five minutes of the game, driving to the basket at will. Meanwhile, Boozer hasn't had as big as offensive games as expected, since he has the quicks advantage over 74-year-old Dikembe Mutombo. But he has been efficient, scoring 20 and 13 while grabbing 10 and seven boards, respectively.
The thing about Booz is that unlike many All-Stars, he doesn't force or even demand his points. He takes what is given to him, and if nothing is there, he's fine with others scoring. This is the epitome of the team ball that the Jazz are playing right now. Plus, when his time does come, he can score several consecutive baskets, and all of a sudden his scoring isn't an issue. This only shows to me what sort of All-Star he is.

Game 1
MVP: Kirilenko- 21 points on 9-13 shooting, 4 boards, 3 assists and a steal.
Goat: McGrady. 7-21 shooting.
Subway Sub of the Game: Korver- 11 points, and two big threes in to ward off a Houston third-quarter rally.
Key Stretch: Early in the game, when Utah established their physicality, and late in the third quarter, when the Jazz stopped Houston's biggest run cold.
Key Numbers: Rebounds, even, though the Jazz grabbed more offensive boards; 50 points in the paint. 18 second-chance points for Utah.

Game 2
MVP: D-Will- 22 points, 3-5 3FG, 5 assists, four of Utah's last seven field goals in the final five minutes.
Goat: Jackson. Though he played better than Game 1, he missed several shots, including free throws, and couldn't handle Deron.
Subway Sub of the Game: Want to say Paul Millsap (8 points, 5 boards), but Korver again- his one-handed dagger were by far the biggest points of his seven. Don't forget Harpring, if only for the fact that he makes things tougher for T-Mac.
Key Stretch: End of first half; D-Will finds Memo for back-to-back threes to give Utah a six-point lead heading into halftime. End of third; Williams goes into the locker room to attend to an injury, but Ronnie Price nails a 3 at the buzzer to give Utah the lead back after a couple of Battier shots gave the advantage to Houston. End of game, where Williams guides ship.
Key Numbers: 41-36 rebounding advantage to the Jazz; 38-16 bench scoring for Utah.

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