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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Houston Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Houston (65-17) vs. #5 Utah (48-34)

Season series: Houston, 4-0

Utah can win if…the Jazz contain Houston's three point attack, force the Rockets to drive into the paint and then rely on Rudy Gobert to protect the rim. Donovan Mitchell scored 171 points in his first six playoff games as a rookie, a total exceeded by only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mitchell averaged a team-high 28.5 ppg in Utah's six game series versus Oklahoma City and he made 10 field goals in a row down the stretch of game six to hold off the Thunder. He is a special player who has a diverse offensive skill set plus the right mentality.

Gobert is a great presence in the paint. He averaged 14.0 ppg on .612 field goal shooting versus the Thunder, while also posting 11.2 rpg and 2.0 bpg.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, who was not able to finish game six due to a hamstring injury, is the catalyst for Utah's offense, a good rebounder and a stout defender. His healthy return is critical if the Jazz are going to have any chance to pull off the upset.

Joe Ingles' regular season numbers do not stand out (11.5 ppg, 4.8 apg) but he gave the Thunder fits with his driving, his clever passing and his three point shooting.

The Jazz are not an ordinary fifth seed. They went 29-6 to close out the regular season and they actually had the same win total as the Thunder (48), so they are not a team that Houston should take lightly.

Houston will win because…the Rockets just have too much offensive firepower for the Jazz to contain. Daryl Morey's dream of constructing a team that shoots almost nothing but three pointers, dunks/layups and free throws has come true under the coaching of Mike D'Antoni. The Rockets made 75 three pointers in their five game first round victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who connected 45 times from beyond the arc and could not generate enough offense elsewhere to make up the difference.

James Harden led the way with series-high averages in scoring (29.0 ppg) and assists (7.4 apg). As always, he is a high variance player: he had 44 points on 15-26 field goal shooting in a game one win and then he only scored 12 points on 2-18 field goal shooting as his teammates carried the Rockets to a game two victory. Until I see it happen, I will remain skeptical that a player who is that inconsistent--no matter how well he can play at his best--will lead a team to a championship, but Harden is 12 wins away from proving me wrong.

Chris Paul averaged 19.0 ppg, 6.6 apg and 4.0 rpg against Minnesota. He is a deadly midrange shooter, a crafty driver, a clever passer and a bulldog defensive player. He tends to wear down as the playoffs progress, so that will be something to watch, but his defensive mindset has helped the Rockets significantly and elevated them to the top of the league thus far.

Clint Capela (15.0 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg versus Minnesota) is the perfect big man for D'Antoni's system: he sets great screens, he rolls hard to the basket, he rebounds, he defends and he does not clog the middle on offense, thus leaving room for Harden and Paul to do their thing.

Eric Gordon did not shoot well during the first round (.344 FG%) but his scoring off of the bench and underrated defense are an important part of Houston's success.

Other things to consider: The Jazz have performed much better than expected after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency and they appear to be a team to watch in the future. Mitchell is performing at an All-NBA level, Gobert's defense is a major factor and Ingles has emerged as a quality secondary playmaker, finishing second on the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and second on the team in assists (3.2 apg) in the first round. Rubio is a poor shooter (.354 FG% in the first round) but he played a significant role in Utah's victory (14.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, team-high 7.0 apg) and if he can make a healthy return then Utah may have a puncher's chance at upsetting Houston.

On paper, the Rockets should win the championship. They posted the league's best regular season record by a country mile, they are healthy, they have a backcourt consisting of the presumptive regular season MVP and a future first ballot Hall of Famer and they have a deep cast of good players who understand/accept their roles. The elephant in the room is that Harden, Paul and D'Antoni all have a history of underperforming in the playoffs.

I am picking Houston because that is the most logical choice but I will never be surprised if a Harden/Paul/D'Antoni team loses in the second round of the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:44 AM

28 comments

28 Comments:

At Saturday, April 28, 2018 11:43:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

My hot take?

It won't be a short and sweet series. Donovan Mitchell is for real, having averaged 29 ppg and 7 rebounds on solid percentages (46% and 36% 3FG). You're correct: Harden and Paul cannot afford to perform below par because the Jazz is far more cohesive and intelligent than the Timberwolves.

However. It's hard to believe the Jazz has enough firepower to withstand those scintillating runs of the Rockets when they go on a three point barrage. Their bench comes in waves. Gobert can protect the paint and control the boards, more effectively than Capela, but the Rockets will try to force him into pick and rolls with stretch fours to offset that edge somewhat.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 12:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

This is another tough series to pick for many of the reasons you listed.

If Rubio is not healthy Houston should win somewhat easily.

If Rubio is healthy, I think it comes down to Chris Paul first, and the referees second. Oklahoma has both the defensive horses to contain Harden's game so long as the ref don't call the sort of phantom fouls they were throwing at Gobert in Game 5 against OKC, and the presence of Derrick Favors means that Houston can't simply hide Harden on the opposing power forward and be fine defensively.

However, if Chris Paul can short-circuit Rubio at the point of attack that puts an awful lot of pressure on Mitchell (who will likely se a steady diet of Ariza/Tucker/Mbah a Moute), and I don't know that Utah will be able to score enough points to win. On the other end, Paul is a challenge for Rubio, who can't simply dare him to shoot threes the way he did against RWB as Paul will make them.

Utah's bench can't hang with Houston's, either.

If Rubio is out, I think Houston wins in 5.

If Rubio is 100% I think Houston has to win in 6, or they'll lose in 7. I just don't trust Harden/Paul with their season on the line.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 8:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hard to see this being very competitive with/without Rubio, but it's hard to win in UTA. Harden/Paul should be the top 2 players in the series. Will be interesting to see if Mitchell can outplay Paul for most of the series like he did with RW.

Nick, HOU's not exactly hiding Harden on defense, especially when putting a guard like himself on a post. Did you see the HOU/MIN series? KAT did almost nothing when Harden was guarding on him.

 
At Sunday, April 29, 2018 12:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very excited to see this series. Utah has been playing like an elite team for a couple of months or more now, and with Gobert, they're extremely well built to contain Harden and to limit easy-3 point looks arising from Harden's (or Paul's) drives.

I think they're perhaps the worst match-up HOU could face, among all the teams remaining in the playoffs, aside from Golden State.

Still think HOU will win, and probably in fewer than 7, but the Jazz could put a scare in them. And when HOU has been challenged in the past, well...

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I am very sad that Rubio will likely not play in this series. I really thought a healthy version of the Jazz might be able to beat this Houston team, but without Rubio to orchestrate the offense Utah is likely just too much of a one-man show on offense (and weaker than they'd otherwise be on defense).

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 9:23:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Harden's floppery is so gross and un-fun to watch. It's all technically legal, but you just know by the way he plays basketball he was the kid who always picked Oddjob in Goldeneye.

It's like watching Ginobili, but with less interesting passing and no dead bats.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 11:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I hope that Rubio makes it back. I love to see all teams at full strength, particularly at this time of year.

Harden is just awful to watch: the flopping, the push off fouls (not called half the time), the whining, the fake tough guy act (I don't think he really wants any part of Jae Crowder unless they are in an arena where there are three officials to keep the peace). It is entertaining to watch him chuck up air balls in crunch time as his team squanders home court advantage, though.

Maybe some of Westbrook's critics will pipe down now about what a supposed disgrace it is to lose to Utah. The Jazz just strolled into the home court of the team with the NBA's best record--a healthy team that almost never loses at home--built a huge lead, withstood a comeback and posted a victory.

This Utah team is very good. I only picked OKC in the first round because I thought that Westbrook had enough help to get to game seven at home and I thought that he would drop 45 or something like that in a close win. I knew that series would be tough and I knew that Utah has the ability to threaten the Rockets. The Rockets have more talent and should win but the Rockets also have three lead guys (D'Antoni/Harden/Paul) who specialize in playoff underachievement, so the next two games in Utah should be very interesting.

Utah is running the Rockets off of the three point line, playing Harden with high hands in the paint and poking holes in Houston's defense. It's almost like watching how the Spurs used to deal with Harden and the Rockets.

The "analytic" boys are going to have to work overtime to explain this loss in a way that does not make their criticisms of Westbrook look silly. This is supposed to be the series where we see how much better of a team player Harden is than Westbrook. Right now, Utah has rolled into Houston and gotten a split, just like the Jazz did to OKC--but Houston unquestionably has much better talent than OKC, so what is Harden's excuse for his team not getting the job done? As you noted, Utah is playing without Rubio, who played a major role for Utah against OKC.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 11:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I continue to think you somewhat overstate the gap between Houston and OKC's supporting casts (as I've said previously I'd take OKC's top 3 or 4 over Houston's but I would take Houston's bench over OKC's by a wider margin), but otherwise I agree with you. All but two of my criticisms (shot selection and off-ball ineffectiveness) of RWB at least equally apply to Harden, and I also think Harden's attitude and PnR defense are even worse than RWB's (though I am forced to admit he has shown some aptitude as a post defender this season).

The push-off fouls were especially bad this game, and it wasn't just Harden. Especially on rebounds, it seems like Gobert and Favors were being shoved out of bounds by Harden/Ariza/Paul at every opportunity. I'm not sure it was called even once. It is not a good sign for Houston's long-term prospects that they lost a game at home where they were getting away with that.

I picked Houston mostly because I didn't think Utah could manufacture enough offense without Rubio but I agree with you that Utah has a real shot to steal the series, especially if Exum (awesome on D tonight) and Ingles (shooting like Reggie Miller) can come anywhere close to replicating their performances from tonight on an even semi-consistent basis.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Unless you think that Harden improved tremendously from last season, how do you explain Houston lapping the field during the regular season? It is clear that Houston has a much better team than OKC. I will admit that I did not realize this before the season--mainly because I did not think that Harden and Paul would play together as well as they have--but over 82 games it became obvious just how good this Houston team is.

That said, Houston's reliance on D'Antoni/Harden/Paul may place a cap on how much playoff success the team will have.

Any 65 win team should be able to take one game on the road and then, if nothing else, win the series in seven--but this 65 win team does not remind me of the 1983 76ers or some of the other great 65 win teams of the past. If Utah wins both home games then game five in Houston will be very interesting. The excuse for Harden used to be that he got tired after the first round because he did not have enough help--that dog won't hunt this year. If Harden starts putting up 2-18 shooting numbers with double digit turnovers, that will be all on him (as his previous poor performances should have been as well, but the media gave him hall passes).

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:26:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I do not think Harden improved tremendously but I do think (in descending order of importance):

1) Houston figured out how to much more effectively hide him on defense by more frequently assigning him to guard 4s.

2) Chris Paul was obviously an upgrade.

3) The combination of an up-tempo D'Antoni team and a strong bench is good for several extra wins over the course of a regular season, even if those advantages are mitigated somewhat in the playoffs where this more rest and more scouting.

I think those three things are probably worth about nine wins combined, and the internal improvement of Capela (defense) and Harden (more consistent stepback, particularly from 3) probably account for the 10th.

As for how that compares to OKC, I do not think OKC did a good job of hiding Westbrook (or Melo) on defense, particularly after Roberson went down. I think they struggled to figure out how to get offensive value out of Paul George while RWB was on the court (except as a floor spacer), and I think they made a massive tactical error (albeit one they may not have had much choice in) by insisting on starting Melo instead of using him as a bench scoring weapon and shoring up the defense and/or shooting of the starting lineup by starting either Grant or Brewer in his place.

In terms of sheer talent, though, I'd presently rather have George than Paul and Adams than Capela. Anderson is probably not as talented as Melo but he certainly understands and fills his role better (though neither is good defensively) and Ariza is the rich man's Brewer, but I think the 2nd and 3rd best guys on a team matter more than the 4th and 5th.

I agree that Houston's bench is a good deal better than OKC's, though I think that's more "Houston's bench is great" than "OKC's bench is awful." OKC has an average to slightly below average bench, IMO, mostly just missing a true 6th man.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:32:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

All that said, I agree with your larger points about Houston and Harden, and am likewise not a believer (I suspect our difference is not so much that I think any more of Harden than you do, but that I think less of RWB). I will note, however, that D'Antoni has grown a lot since his PHX days, particularly with regards to trusting his bench; he rarely runs guys into the ground anymore, and now goes 10 deep instead of only 6 or 7. This version of Mike D'Antoni might have won that '07 Spurs series (or at least the critical Game 5) and waltzed through a one-man Cleveland team en route to a champ-- actually, let's change the subject. I'm making myself sad.

I like Utah's style of play a lot and I think they can beat Houston, especially if Rubio comes back soon and/or they get into Harden and/or Paul's head, but I do not think they're a true title contender either and wouldn't expect them to win more than a game against GSW.

Would love to be wrong about that, though. Like I said, i really like their style of play. Everyone tries on defense, the ball moves on offense, and some very sharp playcalling/substitutions/adjustments from Snyder.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 1:43:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Regarding OKC and Houston, based on what I've watched, I think OKC probably has the superior top two players in Westbrook and George but that Houston has the better overall starting group, bench, and that the skill sets of Houston's supporting cast compliment Harden very well.

Houston has a fleet of sharpshooters that have to be respected at the three point line, leaving wide open lanes that allow Harden to drive to the basket with ease or pop an assist to an open Capela, which helps explain his gaudy numbers this season. Their three point barrage allows them to rack up leads very very quickly when they are hot.

OKC has Westbrook and George but as we saw during the Utah series, the Jazz were able to easily alternate between packing the paint or smothering the perimeter since no one else on the roster is really someone that can create their own shot or is really capable of consistently spreading the floor. Carmelo used to be but he seems utterly washed. Westbrook accordingly struggled with his shot for most of the series and found it in time to nearly force a Game 7 but it was mostly too late and a somewhat questionable non-foul call at the end of Game 6 sealed the deal.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 7:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Adams and Capela are at best a wash but I would take Capela.

OKC's problems relate to (lack of) talent mostly and also to coaching/strategy/philosophy.

Houston has more talent than Utah (which is why I picked the Rockets to win the series) but the Rockets also have a higher variance style of play, which is why the Rockets' chances against good teams in a playoff series will always be a bit dicey.

What do Morey and D'Antoni do if the Rockets don't win the title this year? Their recent philosophy has been to double/triple down on their core beliefs, meaning go smaller/faster and shoot more three pointers. Will they trot out a lineup featuring five "smalls" and jack up 70 three point shots a game? At some point, analytics becomes farcical. Anyone with sense understands that a three point shooter who converts .333 of the time is mathematically equivalent to a .500 two point shooter (as a three point shooter from way back, I used to argue about this in rec league play a long time ago when my ineffective post playing teammates wanted the ball inside so that they could shoot .400 or whatever, not understanding that my three point shots carried more value). However, there is more to the game than just pure mathematical equivalencies: there is floor balance and fatigue and defense and many other factors. The Warriors have built a mini-dynasty not because Curry can make 40 foot threes but because their team is superior in all aspects of the game, including non-glamour areas like defense/passing/screening.

Watching the Rockets flop/flail/push off and have no option other than shoot a bunch of threes while hoping to catch a hot streak is not entertaining or intellectually stimulating. This is supposed to be innovative but if they win the title they will be perhaps the most boring and least innovative champion of recent memory. The Warriors are innovative and exciting because they blend the old and the new; they have not abandoned fundamentals but have adapted them to the new rules and to the talent on their roster. The Rockets are gimmicky and they look lost when the threes don't fall and/or when the officials don't bail them out for flopping and flailing.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 7:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree with your assessment.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 8:56:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I suspect if Morey loses this year he will attempt to find a better answer at the 4 than Ryan Anderson. I know Lebron is the dream but am unsure if that is cap-realistic, so it's more likely they'll end up with somebody Ibaka-ish.

I find the Rockets unpleasant to watch as well but it has less to do with style of play and more to do with Harden's floppery and Paul's whining and cheap-shotting. I quite enjoyed watching D'Antoni's Suns teams and his early Knicks teams, and do think that kind of basketball can be viable with the right personnel... but I am disgusted by the "extra credit" provided by the current personnel, and do not enjoy watching them play basketball.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, Harden's absolutely dominating this series, unlike RW against UTA for most of the series? But, the series isn't over yet. RW kind of lost any right for excuses when he wasn't even the best player on his team for most of the series, and an opposing rookie is outplaying him for most of the series. But, not surprised, you have an endless amount of excuses for RW, and and endless amount of bashing for Harden. Whether or not you like someone's style of play is your choice, but don't let it cloud your analysis of players. I don't know why HOU is so boring either. They have an electric offense, and a great defense, just like GS.

UTA's playing well, but pretty much everything went their way in game 2. They were playing out of their minds offensively, andHOU was struggling some. Hard to see that continuing, but maybe. Harden's averaging 36.5, 7, 9 on .623 TS%, but I guess it's all 'system' or whatever you want to call it.

And for all of Harden's supposed amount of help, only about 5-6 guys are even showing up any in the playoffs. His supporting cast is hardly playing even close to elite right now. Mitchell's cast is at the very least playing as well as Harden's has throughout the playoffs.

Capela put up great numbers in game 2 and he's playing well, but Gobert is right there with him. And 70-80% of Capela's points in game 2 was because of Harden breaking down the defense and spoon-feeding Capela usually for easy, uncontested dunks/layups. If Capela/Gobert switched teams, Gobert would be getting more of these and Capela would be getting much less of these.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Harden is not "dominating this series." Harden is at the helm of a healthy, 65 win team that just lost home court advantage to a fifth seeded team that is missing its starting point guard. If you are going to knock Westbrook's play in the first round, then at least be consistent and admit that Harden has not gotten the job done thus far. Through two games, Harden's Rockets are in the exact same situation that Westbrook's Thunder were, despite Harden clearly having the superior team around him.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I pretty much agree with everything you just wrote. Harden has nothing to brag about in these playoffs so far, and his inability to score on a rusty Dante Exum* is borderline embarrassing.

*That's probably not fair to Exum, who's playing awesome D, but still: Exum has played less than two full seasons of NBA basketball and is not exactly Raja Bell or Bruce Bowen.

 
At Tuesday, May 08, 2018 11:54:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Chris Paul pretty much had the game of his playoff career tonight. They're lucky Donovan Mitchell had to check out with an injury because even with Paul's career night, I thought the Jazz still had a chance to take the game with him playing. Harden predictably mostly bricked his way through a close out game

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 2:39:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

3 thoughts:

1) That's easily the best game of CP3's career, right?

2) Good timing, there, because otherwise Harden was gonna be the goat tonight.

3) Injuries suck.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 9:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree with each point you made. Paul saved Harden--who, as is often the case during the playoffs, played a subpar game--and Utah had a decent chance to win the game if Mitchell had not gotten hurt.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 9:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) Considering time and circumstance, this has to be the best NBA game of Paul's career.

2) Harden is who he has always been. Morey has done a better job of building a team around Harden than I expected. The departure of Durant from OKC and the effective departure of Leonard from San Antonio this season were both well-timed for the Rockets' ascent.

3) In the long run, injuries probably balance out (though some franchises seem to be "cursed") but in the short run injuries can make a huge difference. OKC would have beaten Utah without Rubio, with Exum hobbled and with Mitchell potentially missing the concluding portion of the series. The guy who Anonymous keeps calling "rookie" (as if this is a derisive term) put up playoff stats that put him in the category of Wilt, Baylor, MJ, Iverson. Mitchell looks like a player who will become a perennial All-Star and perhaps even better than that.

4) Getting back to a point that I made and that Anonymous contested, a major part of Houston's success can be attributed to Capela playing at an All-Star level.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 1:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, for all the excuses you make about RW not having enough help, and he's getting outplayed for most of the series by another teammate and then by an opposing rookie, kind of ironic, don't you think? Is Mitchell not a rookie then? He didn't even make the AS team either, and RW is supposedly an MVP-caliber player for several years now.

Capela has picked up his play in the playoffs, but still isn't even a borderline AS yet for any season which I'm surprised you're even debating, but that could certainly change next season.

KD to GS isn't exactly well-timed for any team in the NBA, particularly in the West. GS was absolutely stacked before KD, now it's going to be almost impossible for anyone to beat GS unless there's a lot of luck involved. And even if Kawhi was healthy, HOU would've most likely still been the #1 seed. GS/SA would've slugged it out in the 2nd round with the winner getting HOU in the WCF. HOU's cast was never on par with SA's until this year either.

Back to Mitchell. HOU was rallying and had a nice lead when he went down in game 5. It's highly unlikely UTA wins even if he stayed in the game. But, Harden caused the injury stealing the ball from him with one-on-one defense and taking it the distance for a dunk. You can't get pick-pocketed by a supposed terrible defender if you're supposedly that great. Mitchell put up decent numbers, but nothing spectacular. However, he shot awful in the HOU series, and wasn't that much of a factor overall. UTA should be pretty good going forward though.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 6:59:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@anonymous

It's pretty tough for any player to adjust to a new role on a team on the fly, but especially the point guard position, and especially from a first year player. To further up the difficulty level, Mitchell was also counted on to be the main scoring threat as well as the guy who set everyone up...and he spent a good portion of his time on the floor guarding the soon-to-be-named League MVP. What Mitchell was able to accomplish, backs up what David is saying about his bright future and should not be dismissed as "nothing spectacular."

Look at who Utah lost during this series. Basically two starters (Rubio and Favors) and the defacto back up point guard (Exum was locking Harden up in the minutes he played. Before he got hurt, he was also 4-5 from the field). The Jazz didn't have Rubio throughout. Whatever you may think of Rubio, it is without question he organized their offense and was a major contributor on defense. Exum made Harden look like a sub-All Star (Harden got bailed out a couple of times. I can't understand why the refs continue to make those calls in his favor). Favors played, but was hobbled. He functioned as an elite backup center when Gobert sat...and a big body that wouldn't get bullied by Nene. Those three injuries were too much to overcome. It's too bad, would have loved to see a full strength Utah go toe-to-toe with Houston.

FWIW, I think Utah would've beaten Houston.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 11:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan, nobody's debating that Mitchell had a very solid playoff run, though he performed quite subparly against HOU. He was also playing PG, a position which he should be able to play, certainly less than half the time against HOU. Yes, he was in a tough spot, but he had his chances, and he has a bright future. But, 19ppg on .360 shooting is definitely not spectacular, but maybe you think it is. Mitchell was a solid AS vs OKC, but didn't look like an AS vs HOU.

But, what I've been saying several times now and my main point is how much David praises RW and makes lots of excuses for him while he doesn't apply this same standard to other particular players, especially Harden. If Harden had a teammate play like George did for most of the UTA series, he'd be saying how much help Harden had, but instead we keep hearing how bad RW's teammates supposedly were. If there was an opponent outplaying Harden for most of the series before beating Harden's team(especially a guy who's a rookie and has never made the AS team yet), we'd be hearing how ludicrous it is to consider Harden an MVP candidate. There needs to be more consistency.

Harden had a subpar game 6, no doubt, but overall was great in the series. Rubio has been in the league a long time, and never been close to AS consideration. I don't doubt he would've helped UTA more, but to change the outcome of the series is another thing. HOU had the top 2 players in the series, a deeper team, more experience, and homecourt advantage. There was little chance UTA would've won this series even if everything went absolutely right for them.

Do you think the officials really love Harden that much to give him more calls than anyone else? Or maybe he might actually know how to draw a lot of fouls, something he's been doing for years now? Could that be a possibility? They keep changing the foul rules mainly because of him, and he keeps on drawing a lot of fouls. Part of the way Harden plays is aesthetically unpleasing, but most of these supposed flops he does are actually fouls. He knows how to bait defenders into reaching. One little reach, and he's often going to draw the foul.

 
At Friday, May 11, 2018 6:11:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@anonymous,

Fair assessment. I admit I haven't watched much of Harden this year outside of highlights and box scores. But I did watch four of the five games of this series and...what I saw 2 years ago remains true today. Harden initiates contact on like 90 percent of everything he does. You can make an argument that he commits an offensive foul half the time. Using his off hand to push off, or hook under guys arms. Using his thick frame to drive up into the chests of his defenders. And, he's still really really excellent at flailing his arms, jerking his head back, animatedly shrugging his shoulders, and stumbling forward in both subtle and exaggerated forms.

His true art however, is doing all of that while still...amazingly...maintaining his dribble. Either that or he tumbles to the ground and loses the ball. He's like a street magician. Like David Blaine. In everyday life, he wows and amazes. But put him on the big stage and after all the hype and buildup, he leaves us confused or completely let down.

I love basketball. I solidified that love throughout the RoughRiley defensive 90s and am smitten with today's style. I believe the rule changes have allowed for skill over power. It's exciting. I love threes, I love handles, I love passing. And yet, Harden somehow makes me hate those very things I love.

You ironically summed it up best. "One little reach, and he's often going to draw the foul." This is not something I love. In any era of basketball. That doesn't negate Harden's success. But it is telling.

I agree that it seems David carries a double standard regarding Westbrook and Harden. But, I continue to read this site because he's proven he doesn't get carried away in the moment. He sees what he sees and writes what he sees. And, 5-10 years on, a lot of what he saw, turned out to be right.

I think Harden's specialized game is special enough to win under ideal circumstances. But he has proven to be mentally weak throughout his career and because his game is very, very specialized, should not be compared to and/or praised like other great players that have more complete skillsets and/or mental fortitude.

Sadly, Westbrook's star has dimmed in my eyes because the one thing that made all his other shit acceptable, was that I thought he had mental fortitude. His actions and inability to overcome his circumstances definitely call his mental fortitude into question.

I agree with most of yours and Nick's criticism. His Kobe-like mentality is bearing less and less of the positives (unwavering faith in himself, ice cold cutthroat blood flow, attack attack attack POV) and giving way to the negatives (trusting only himself, being an overly demanding teammate, letting emotions get the best of him).

Winning cures everything though. Ask Kobe.

(And no, I am definitely not saying Westbrook is in Bryant's wheelhouse. He's not. He isn't skillswise, accomplishment-wise, anywise).

 
At Friday, May 11, 2018 6:31:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@anonymous,

I brought up Mitchell's struggles because the entire team dynamic changed once their starting point guard was no longer available. It's true that Rubio's never been close to an all-star. It's also true that this Jazz team was built much like that 04 Pistons, in the Voltron sort of way. (Sum is greater than the parts). Every starter filled a role. Losing Rubio changed the entire dynamic of the team. To me, Mitchell didn't so much choke, as he struggled due to filling an entirely different role.

There’s a massive difference between getting perfectly timed, ideally positioned passes off screens/movement before attacking the seams created in the defense and bringing the ball up and being forced to initiate the offense while balancing shooting with getting everyone involved.

If Tatum suddenly had to run point guard, his results would probably be similar. Wouldn’t make him any less of a player.

I believe with Rubio there, the Jazz's perimeter defense vastly improves, the offense has an engine, and Mitchell could go back to focusing on scoring, allowing his scoring to dictate openings to pass. Mitchell put up the same amount of points as Harden (28.5 vs 29) in their respective first rounds, but did so with better efficiency (46/36/92 vs 42/38/87). All those games were with Rubio.

If Mitchell basically played equal to Harden...the chances for an upset series win with a healthy Jazz team looks a lot better right?

Still, based solely off of that last game by the Point God, I can be convinced that the Rockets had the two best players in the series along with knowing they were the more experienced playoff team and had home court advantage.

And yet...the Rockets did drop a game...at home...against a squad missing its starting point guard. And those two best players in the series, also have consistent playoff histories of choking (or in Harden's case disappearing) despite being the favorites.

The Jazz at full strength, were arguably the best team heading into the playoffs led by their NBA-best defense. And, the Rockets entire offense (and subsequently their defensive effort) hinges on Harden and/or Chris Paul creating everything. Meaning, it's exploitable. (High variance as David says).

I also think Quin Snyder is a better tactical coach.

Alas, "how many licks to the center of a tootsie pop...?"

 
At Monday, May 14, 2018 6:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I was obviously not disputing that Mitchell is a rookie. You keep writing "rookie" as if to say "just a rookie." Well, every player was a rookie at some point and some rookies are a lot better than others. Utah went 29-6 down the stretch in no small part due to the play of rookie Mitchell.

I am not "making excuses" for Westbrook. I am analyzing the entire series, as opposed to focusing on one player to not like (as you do with Westbrook) and one player to like (as you do with Harden).

Utah was obviously better than OKC during the second half of the season. I thought that OKC would win the series in seven due to homecourt advantage but I made it clear that I expected this to be a tough series for OKC. Westbrook's floor game was outstanding as always but he did not shoot particularly well. George had some moments but I would not go so far as to say that he outplayed Westbrook during the series; you have to look at the series as a whole, not just cherry pick the games that fit your preferred narrative. Neither player shot well from the field, but Westbrook averaged more points, rebounds, assists and steals than George. In fact, Westbrook led both teams in scoring, rebounds and assists, so on paper by conventional standards he sure looks like the best player in the series. Mitchell shot better from the field but had much fewer rebounds and assists.

Harden supposedly "causing" Mitchell's injury by supposedly playing great defense has nothing to do with anything that is relevant. Anyone can turn the ball over once at any time; that does not mean that Harden consistently plays good defense or that Mitchell did not have a good playoff run overall.

Of course, no one knows for sure what would have happened if Mitchell had not gotten hurt but it is obvious that Utah had a better chance with him than without him.

Yes, I do think that the officials are either fooled by Harden or else have elevated him to that select group of players who receive "benefit of the doubt" on 50-50 plays. The problem for Harden and Houston is that Harden relies so much on drawing fouls that are not really fouls that he is almost comically helpless when he runs into an officiating crew that does not go for that nonsense--and that is why I say that Harden's game would translate much more poorly to other eras than just about any other player of his status.

 

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