There’s a small scene in The Matrix: Reloaded in which Neo’s crew is trying to figure out where he is and what he’s doing. When the operator discovers the newly unlocked powers of Neo have led him to flying around the world, the response is simple. “He’s doing his Superman thing.” Ricky Rubio lasted seven minutes in this game before his hamstring didn’t allow him to play the rest of the game. The Utah Jazz couldn’t find any rhythm offensively for the first 18 minutes of this game. Somehow they entered halftime earning a 41-41 tie.
At halftime, the Jazz had a chance to regroup with Quin Snyder, and find their game plan without their point guard. That’s when rookie Donovan Mitchell decided to do his Superman thing. In leading the Jazz to a 96-91 victory, Mitchell showed every ounce of special ability he has in him. He took over the game you’d hope a young star could eventually learn how to do. But with him, it all came so effortlessly and naturally in the third quarter.
From the end of the second quarter through much of the third quarter, Mitchell knocked down 10 straight shots. In the third quarter alone, Mitchell scored 22 of the Jazz’s 37 points, dueling with Russell Westbrook and his 20 third quarter points. The Jazz needed someone to take over the game and the youngest option in the rotation decided to do it all.
The duel between Mitchell and Westbrook couldn’t be overstated. Mitchell refused to let his team go back to Oklahoma City for a Game 7. Westbrook refused to let his team’s season go quietly into the night. Westbrook finished the night with 46 points on 43 shot attempts. Mitchell’s numbers looked much better with 38 points on 26 attempts, but both guards found ways to turn the game on its head. Whenever it looked like either side might find a rhythm, the other guard flexed their ability and made a big play.
Utah built a big enough cushion with a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter before the Oklahoma City Thunder chaotically clawed their way back into the game. Insanity reigned in the last minute of the game with a three-point deficit for the Thunder. In the final minute of the game, the Thunder missed five straight shots with five offensive rebounds keeping things alive. Utah couldn’t find defensive rebounds to end the possession and Steven Adams kept finding ways to keep the ball alive. But Westbrook missed three shots in the final minute and Paul George missed four attempts.
George missed on the biggest and most controversial play of the game. With the Thunder still needing a 3-pointer to tie the game, George found the ball in his hands at the top of the arc. He came around a screen as Rudy Gobert jumped out at him. George pump faked the 3-point attempt, causing Gobert to jump into his shooting path. As the contact was made, George flailed a shot toward the rim as he expected to hear a whistle. No foul was call, the Jazz finally corralled a rebound, and then worked the clock down to 6.9 seconds before Mitchell sealed it with two free throws.
One of the ugliest games of the season turned into the most exciting. Joe Ingles knocked down 3-pointers and initiated the offense. He was also part of a defensive effort with Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale that held Paul George to five points on 2-of-16 from the field. At times, it looked like they completely took George out of the game and any shot attempt was reluctant at best. Derrick Favors had 13 points and eight rebounds, but one of the biggest impacts on the game. His jumper with 1:08 left in the game extended the Jazz lead back to three points and kept OKC at bay a bit more.
Gobert plugged in 12 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocked shots in nearly 39 minutes. His defense inside kept the Thunder taking midrange jumper after midrange jumper, before they started chucking 3-pointers like a frantic Double Dare challenge. Alec Burks ended up being plugged into the lineup when Rubio was hurt and the Jazz desperately needed an attacker off the dribble. Overall, the strength of the team being the team mantra rang out in a hectic finish and dynamic second half.
The Jazz came up big when they needed to. They kept two All-Stars to inefficient nights, although Westbrook put as much pressure as anybody could have possibly imagined. And, of course, the 21-year old rookie did his Superman thing.
Now the Jazz move on to the second-round for the second straight season to face the 1-seed Houston Rockets. Here are the three things for the Jazz to concentrate on in the next series, as they look to upset the Rockets:
Key 1: The 3-point line in king in this series
For the second straight year, the Rockets set the NBA record for 3-pointers made in a season. The combination of Mike D’Antoni’s system and Daryl Morey’s analytical beliefs have created the most extreme 3-point attack we’ve ever imagined. Houston took 34 more 3-point attempts in the regular season than they took 2-pointers. Their accuracy of 36.2 percent on the season wasn’t anything particularly special. They ranked 13th in 3-point accuracy. But when combined with their volume of attempts, it often runs the other team out of the gym.
Utah ranked fifth in the NBA in lowest 3-point rate allowed. The percentage of shots taken against them from behind the 3-point line often evens out the fact that the Jazz rank 17th in 3-point percentage allowed. Most of this low 3-point volume against the Jazz stems from them running shooters inside the arc and daring them to attack Rudy Gobert. The Rockets though almost never settle for that midrange area. They either keep working for 3-point looks or they get to the basket.
In four regular season wins over the Jazz, Houston made 28 more 3-pointers than Utah did. That means the Jazz had to make up an 84-point deficit from the 3-point line over those four games. Rockets shot 42.7 percent from deep in that season series. For Utah to compete and even think about upsetting the Rockets in Round 2, they have to lessen the deficit behind the arc.
Key 2: Make a decision on offensive boards
The Jazz have a conundrum with their personnel and their strengths against the abilities and scouting report for the Rockets. Houston loves to make big men uncomfortable on switches and guarding the perimeter. They could look at a big team like the Jazz and think it’s a buffet line in Las Vegas. Utah has the big men to be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, but saw their offensive rebounding rate sit 17th in the NBA this season. Their 21.5 percent offensive rebounding rate plummeted to just 14.1 percent in four games against the Rockets.
The fear in crashing the offensive glass against the Rockets is any miss could be a transition 3-pointer in the blink of an eye. But playing bully ball and dominating the glass in a slow-paced game could tip the scales in the favor of the Jazz in big spurts. Utah had the 13th best transition defense in the NBA. That will have to be much better against the Rockets, who possess the best transition offense in the league. That’s where the offensive rebounding decision becomes so important.
Do the Jazz crash the offensive boards and hope they can keep possessions alive? Or do they give up on those second chance opportunities and get back on defense to try to slow down the Rockets?
Key 3: Get Ricky Rubio as healthy as possible
While the Jazz weren’t exactly inventing a new high level of basketball in the seven minutes Rubio played in Game 6, losing him meant the team couldn’t generate the basics on offense. Quin Snyder cycled through options with initiating the offense. He tried Dante Exum and Alec Burks at various points early to force dribble penetration. A lot of that led to sloppy, uninspired offense that wasn’t getting the Jazz into their typical sets. Without Rubio on the floor, their offensive playbook just changes a lot.
Rubio has battled this hamstring issue for a while now. Leaving so early and being ruled out for an immediate return isn’t a great sign. Rubio’s ability to pester Westbrook on defense and then run the offense on the other end will be paramount to Utah’s hope of challenging the Rockets in Round 2. They need him against the combination of Chris Paul and James Harden. With his ball movement and creativity in the pick-and-roll, the Jazz can move the Rockets’ defense from side-to-side.
While Rubio struggled against Houston in the regular season, Utah needs their full complement of players at their best.
Jazz begin their series with the Rockets in Houston on Sunday for Game 1.