Jazz 115, Rockets 108 - Hit Your Shots

The Utah Jazz seem to be poisonous to the Houston Rockets. Much like last time the two teams faced off, the Jazz looked like an elite team with deadeye shooters, and the Rockets looked like an overachiever who hit a brick wall. Both sides were missing key players (Derrick Favors, George Hill for Utah, Ryan Anderson for Houston), but the biggest no-show on the night was Houston's shooting stroke, embodied by James Harden's disastrous 0-8 showing from behind the arc. The Rockets have to hit their shots to win against quality opponents. It's meaningless, but also true.

When they play well, the Rockets are one of the most engaging and delightful teams to watch in the NBA. They play fast, hit shots, run up the score, and spread a sort of controlled chaos that lets James Harden creates masterpieces out of raw materials. They can stand toe to toe against any team in the league when they shoot at their season averages, and they're probably the best team in the league outside of Oakland, San Antonio and Cleveland.

Also, this happens.

The Utah Jazz are a defensive bulwark, with Rudy Gobert controlling the paint and anchoring the defensive unit in a way few centers can. They also managed some excellent free throw defense, limiting the Rockets to 75% shooting on their free throws, including a terrible 1-6 stretch by Clint Capela. The Rockets hit 25% of their 32 three point attempts, and it wasn't all due to Utah's defense. Open shots weren't falling, at it allowed the Jazz to get off to a hot start.

The Rockets, in fact, showed flashes of their 2015-2016 selves. An under-reported element of that season was that the Rockets shot horribly for the first six weeks of the season, throwing the entire year into disarray. It was true on a micro scale, as well. Within a game, the Rockets would look engaged and ready, then miss every shot, get punished for it, and fall into a funk they couldn't dig themselves out of. This team never looks that deep in a funk, but it's clear that this affects them. They came out with good effort on both sides, and came up with an 8-point lead to show for it after one quarter. They played the Jazz even the rest of the way and lost by 7.

The difference between this game and their wins is sometimes as simple as making shots, making free throws. If Harden hits one more three, if Capela hits one more free throw, they have a much different fourth quarter struggle. If the Jazz hit less than 38% of their threes (12-31), or if Rodney hood doesn't go off for 19 points on 57% shooting, the hole isn't as big. The Rockets made up some of this by shooting 27-47 on twos, but that's not really their game. They need the three point barrage. The Rockets are masters of chaos, but if they can't start the party, they just look silly wearing their tuxedos.

These losses are unpleasant, this one even moreso than the recent heartbreaker to the San Antonio Spurs, though both were examples of poor shooting. This was less of a case of the Rockets being unable to overcome a monumental rally despite playing well. Tonight, the Rockets simply looked like a mediocre team, struggling to fight above their weight class. If the Rockets can avoid having these games in the playoffs, they have a shot at the finals. If the Jazz can replicate this type of play, so do they. One of these is more likely than the other on any given night, and it's important to remember that's why the Jazz are the ones chasing the Rockets in the standings.

Dark Game Ball

The Rockets lost in a miserable fashion, so they get a dark game ball. This game ball represents not the normal glory and beauty of basketball, but the basketball they might have in the upside down, or maybe the mirror universe. The Dark Game Ball embodies the misery and suffering that must come to the loser to create the majesty and triumph for the winner.

Tonight, young Sam Dekker must hold the ichor-coated curse that is the Dark Game Ball. He in burdened with this due to his inability to do much at all in 21 minutes of play. He missed all three of his three point attempts, and had merely two steals, a rebound and an assist to go with 2 points. His game-worst +/- of 20 acts as a lighting rod for this benighted artifact.

Beware, children, lest ye feel the clammy skin of a Dark Game Ball.

This was an ugly night, with ugly shooting, and an ugly result. This is the grim specter of the Rockets, the shadow cast by their brilliant light. They have to make their shots. If they do, we can bask in their glow. If they don't, we have to watch an intensely frustrating display. Let's hope that they don't have to climb out of another shooting hole any time soon.

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