Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz

Rockets expect 'adjustments, more energy' from well-coached Jazz in Game 2

donovan-mitchell-james-harden-050218-ftr
The Rockets' James Harden guards Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz (Getty Images)

HOUSTON - Familiarity in the NBA playoffs tends to breed contempt for the opposing sides.

A hard pick here leads to an errant elbow there and before you know it, the bad blood is boiling and tempers flare. If you're not careful, you'll even have an old school playoff skirmish, the kind that was routine in a bygone era.

But not these Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, who are struggling to conjure up some genuine disdain for one another.

In fact, they can't stop gushing about each other.

From Jazz coach Quin Snyder's affection for Rockets stars James Harden and Chris Paul to the universal love the Rockets have expressed about Jazz rookie wunderkind Donovan Mitchell, the mutual admiration forming in this Western Conference semifinal is beyond cordial.

Snyder described Harden's game in artistic terms Monday and said basically there is no way to stop him, a sentiment Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni agreed with Tuesday.

"You can put a list of about 28 other teams that don't have an answer, either," he said. "There's no answer. He might play bad because he's human, but there's nothing that you can conceivably come up with to stop him."

But D'Antoni also praised Mitchell, insisting that after a spectacular rookie season and just seven playoff games that he's one of the "best players in our league."

Old school types would have to cover their eyes and ears as these two teams continue to size each other up.

They want to beat each other in the worst way, of course. And they'll be sure to go at each other with everything they can muster in Game 2 of this series Wednesday night at Toyota Center.

The mutual respect, however, is likely here to stay.

Memories run deep on both sides, the connections more sacred than any temporary disdain for one another that might reveal itself during the course of this battle for a trip to the conference finals.

Rockets veteran Joe Johnson played a critical role for the Jazz team that knocked off a L.A. Clippers team in seven games, the same team that Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute played on before joining the Rockets last offseason.

Mbah a Moute hasn't forgotten the masterwork Snyder put in during that series. That's why he's expecting more of the same this time around.

"Their coach is unbelievable," he said. "I have a lot of respect for him. His game plan adjustments are amazing and his in-game adjustments during a series are amazing. Going against him last year, seven times, I can tell. I know how many times they changed from game to game. And every time we did something defensively he would come back with a counter for it, so I'm sure he's going to have some stuff for our switches [on defense].

"You could tell a little bit in the second half," Mbah a Moute said when asked if he noticed any mid-game adjustments in Game 1. "They started throwing the ball to [Rudy] Gobert a little bit more and having Chris and smaller guys in that position where they had to either wrap him up or foul him. So yeah, I think it's going to be even harder to play better and defend better because they are going to make some adjustments, and some pretty good ones. It's going to be a good challenge. I know that from playing them last year, that's for sure."

Paul has served as a mentor and sounding board for Mitchell during his breakout rookie season, but informed him before Sunday's series opener that all their communication in the immediate future would come on the court.

He wasn't as eager as Mbah a Moute to make the connection between this current Jazz team and the one that ended his Clippers tenure last season.

"Was Donovan there, was Ricky Rubio there?" he said, pushing back on a reporter's question. "That's a totally different team. Gordon Hayward was there. Joe Johnson was there … and now he's with us. That [team] doesn't have nothing to do with this."

Save, of course, for plenty of the other players on the Jazz who did play in that series. Gobert, who serves as the backbone of the Jazz defense, is certainly an easily identifiable link.

"Yeah, you still got Rudy there, so you still have him there back in the lane," Paul said. "I think they know us pretty well and we know them pretty well. But that's it."

What they know of each other based on four regular season match-ups and Game 1, all of those games the Rockets won by 11 or more points, gives both sides a reason to be wary.

Even with their success, the Rockets know that this Jazz team has been vetted by their season and that first-round series upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games.

And instead of coming down off of an emotionally exhausting series just 36 hours before Game 1, they'll show up for Game 2 having had two days to rest, study and prepare to deal with the Rockets.

"I think they are going to play with a lot more energy," Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. "It's more time between games for them. They got time to go back and study film of how we played them and what they did well. We just have to continue to play with high intensity for us, and play hard for as close to 48 minutes as we can."

***

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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