Judging progress incrementally in this case might ease the frustration the Jazz are forced to deal with right now.
At this point, with the Houston Rockets holding likely an insurmountable 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Semifinal best-of-seven series, obviously the Jazz are not nearly good enough to beat the NBA’s elite in the playoffs. This much is evident after the Rockets came into Vivint Smart Home Arena and swept both games on the trip, the second coming by a score of 100-87 Sunday night.
Last year, after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, the Jazz got swept in the second, round by the Golden State Warriors. Going by the progress line, using simple math, the Jazz have advanced beyond last season.
“We’re competing,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
By virtue of securing the NBA’s best record in the regular season, the Rockets were heavily favored to win this series. Maybe the most surprising aspect is the Jazz managed to win once, which came in Game 2 in Houston.
Back in Salt Lake City, where the Jazz won all three games in the first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was all Houston. In 96 minutes of playing time in both games, the Jazz led all of one possession – when Joe Ingles hit a three-pointer in the opening seconds of Game 3.
From then on, the Rockets asserted their dominance, the kind that is suspected to carry over into the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. The defending NBA champions also hold a 3-1 advantage in their series against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Despite the wide disparity in talent against a team that won 65 games in the regular season and is 7-1 in the playoffs, the Jazz at least made the Rockets work in two of the games. But only one of those games came at home.
After getting blown out in Game 3, the Jazz refused to die in the virtual do-or-die game Sunday. The Rockets led the entire game, but the Jazz kept battling to whittle the deficit to five points with six minutes to play.
That alone, in making the game competitive, is measured progress. The game easily could have ended up embarrassingly out of hand.
“There are no moral victories,” Snyder said. “We gave ourselves a chance to be in the game, but we didn’t make enough plays to come out on top.”
And the Jazz did it without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who has missed the entire series with a hamstring injury. To man the position, the Rockets can rely on James Harden and Chris Paul, who have a combined 16 All-Star appearances between them.
The Jazz were forced to use a makeshift lineup, with rookie Donovan Mitchell moving over to play point guard. Serious advantage to the Rockets.
Mitchell continued struggling to shoot the ball (37 percent in the series), but he gained valuable experience, especially for playing out of position. The progress he has made is obvious.
“This is part of his growth as a player, and it’s happening in the playoffs,” Snyder said. “I could not be more satisfied with his growth.”
Few players, let alone a rookie, are going to have sustained success against Houston’s backcourt, which also includes Eric Gordon.
With the addition of Paul coming over from the Los Angeles Clippers in an offseason trade, the Rockets are much improved compared to last season. The biggest difference is in Houston’s defense, which held the Jazz to below 100 points in three of the four games.
In this game, the Jazz had 45 shots at the rim but only made 22 of them.
The emergence of Clint Capela, who blocked six shots in this game, has made the Rockets a viable contender to threaten the Warriors and actually go on and win the NBA championship. The 23-year-old center from Switzerland is averaging 17.2 points and 12.2 rebounds in this series, numbers that Jazz center Rudy Gobert has not come close to matching.
“He’s doing an excellent job blocking those shots,” Snyder said. “Obviously, on the offensive end he really knows his strengths.”
So now the Jazz face the difficult task of needing to win in Houston on Tuesday night to extend the series. It probably won’t happen, but at least the Jazz made progress.