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Donovan Mitchell Bojan Bogdanovic celebrate
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Jazz New Roster Finally Breaks Through Against Rockets

Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz congratulates Bojan Bogdanovic #44 (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

HOUSTON, Texas – Though Bojan Bogdanovic’s buzzer-beating three-point shot won the game, it was the Utah Jazz commitment to rebuilding their roster that proved the difference against the Houston Rockets.

The Story

The Utah Jazz had been eliminated by the Houston Rockets in back to back postseason series’. Last week, against a severely short-handed Rockets team, Mike D’Antoni’s ultra-small, switch everything defense and isolate everyone offense once again made the Jazz strengths look futile. 

Despite acquiring Mike Conley and his two year $60+ million contract, signing Bojan Bogdanovic to a $72 million contract and filling out the roster with shooters, the Jazz couldn’t seem to find an answer to the Rockets gimmick. 

Then, with the Rockets committing totally to their progressive style of small-ball, recently trading Clint Capela, their most capable big man, after a summer in which they swapped Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, Quin Snyder was gifted a solution for how to conquer the previously troublesome system. 

With the Rockets additions, Snyder was able to recall the Jazz gameplan from two postseasons ago against the Westbrook led Oklahoma City Thunder, allowing the aggressive-though-inefficient guard to play a ball-dominant basketball, trusting it would keep his team in the game. Though Westbrook had a big offensive performance, scoring 38 points, it took the guard 33 shots to get there.

As a result, the Rockets shot just 26-45 inside the paint, despite the league’s leading scorer James Harden connecting on 8-9 shots within the restricted area.

Westbrook’s 113.9 offensive rating was 2.6 points per 100 possessions lower than the Rockets’ offensive rating for the game. 

Over the previous two postseasons, the Rockets switchy style of defense allowed Houston to focus on guard Donovan Mitchell, largely eliminating the Jazz only playmaker on the perimeter. As a result, the Jazz added Conley and Bogdanovic to both add playing making and space the floor for Mitchell to operate.

With the Jazz bench struggling through the first quarter of the season, the Jazz brain trust  Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik opted to add more shooting and playmaking in the form of guard Jordan Clarkson. 

Snyder eliminated the Rockets’ heavy switching defensive approach by turning to Conley and Clarkson in isolation. The new Jazz guards combined for 50 points, led by 30 from Clarkson and teamed for 33 second-half points to propel the Jazz to victory. 

Though Conley had struggled to find a place with the Jazz through his first 21 games of the season before his hamstring injury, the veteran guard has scored 18 points or more in each of his four outings since re-entering the starting lineup.

Bogdanovic shot just 1-6 from the floor over the 47 minutes and 59 seconds of the game but reaffirmed the Jazz offseason image change once again by sinking the buzzer-beating three-pointer over smaller Rockets defenders. 

If the Jazz 34-18 record wasn’t proof enough the front office offseason vision was working, the team’s breakthrough victory against the Rockets represents the full realization of the organization’s commitment to taking the next step. 

The Game

From the outset, the Jazz had a clear gameplan against the Rockets. Allow Westbrook to touch the ball as often as possible and hope that as a result of limiting his touches, Harden would struggle to find a rhythm. 

With Gobert patrolling the paint and Westbrook repeatedly falling into the trap of dominating the ball, the Jazz were able to hold Harden to just 28 points, more than seven points below his season average. Harden was held to just six free-throw attempts, half his season average, of which he made just four. The guard connected on just two of his 12 three-point attempts. 

Though Snyder’s gameplan of allowing Westbrook to over dribble proved successful, the Jazz second unit frontcourt struggled against the Rockets isolation play. 

As a result, Snyder sat both Georges Niang and Tony Bradley in the second half, turning to the smaller, more nimble Juwan Morgan, and found great success. While Bradley and Niang with a combined -4 on the floor together, the Jazz were 11 points better than the Rockets in Morgan’s seven minutes on the floor. 

While Niang spaces the floor and Bradley provides valuable size as a rebounder, Morgan’s ability to defend multiple positions was more valuable against the Rockets’ smaller lineup. 

The Jazz were able to keep the game close with the Rockets through the first half by knocking down 10-20 from the three-point line, despite attempting just four free-throws, and trailed 58-54 at the break. 

But as the team struggled to shoot in the second half, knocking down just 5-18 from deep, the Jazz made a commitment to getting into the paint and as a result, the free-throw to over the Rockets. 

The Jazz shot 14 second half free-throws, connecting on 13 of their attempts, largely thanks to a heavy isolation attack.

Despite struggling through the first three and a half quarters of the game, Mitchell scored all 10 of his second half in the final 6:32 of the fourth quarter, connecting on 4-7 shots, and 2-2 from the free-throw line to finish with 24 points. 

The Big Picture

After losing five straight, the Jazz have won two straight games with clutch come from behind performances. 

As a result of the win, the built a 1.5 game lead over the Rockets in the standings, and remain in the 4th seed. The two teams would match up in the first round of the playoffs if they were to start today. 

The Rockets commitment to small ball is one of the most aggressive gambles in NBA history, through three games, the results have been questionable. 

Houston beat the Lakers 121-111 in their first game after trading Capela, but have lost two straight to the Phoenix Suns and the Jazz. The Suns beat the Rockets 127-91. Predictably, the Jazz outrebounded Houston 48-36 and had 16 second-chance points to the Rockets two. 

Though the Jazz are just 2-2 since Conley returned to the starting lineup, his improved play is important for the roster. Perhaps more than any other game this season, the matchup between the Jazz and Rockets was a true chess match and Conley was a major piece in the strategic approach. 

Conley’s consistent three-shooting and ability to attack off the dribble are a reliable weapon that should translate against most matchups. As opposing defenses attempt to take away the Jazz primary offensive options, being able to default to a player of Conley’s caliber is significant. 

It looked very possible for the Jazz to enter the All-Star break having lost five straight, but back to back wins helps solidify the positive narrative over the first half of the season, regardless of what happens in the Jazz next two games. 

The Jazz have clearly targeted Juwan Morgan for a long time, and tonight he was a major piece in the team’s victory. The Jazz signed Morgan to the summer league roster, kept him with the Salt Lake City Stars, then waived wing Stanton Kidd in favor of Morgan in November. 

Morgan had played mostly garbage minutes for the Jazz before moving in front of Niang and Bradley against the Rockets and recorded a career-high in minutes (7:11) and tied his career-high with four points.

Whether he remains a favorite in Snyder’s lineup or not, Morgan’s versatility adds a wrinkle to the team’s frontcourt that they have needed when teams play five-out against the Jazz.