If there is a team other than the Warriors that can slow down the Rockets, it might be the Jazz.
After losing their two leading scorers in the offseason, the Jazz surprised everyone by becoming one of the scariest teams in the league in the final months of the regular season. They won 18 of 24 games following All-Star Weekend, doing so with a better net rating (10.8) than the 76ers (10.7), Rockets (8.2), Raptors (6.4) and Pelicans (4.7). The Jazz ranked in the bottom half of the league on offense in those games, but their defense carried them into the playoffs.
Whereas Donovan Mitchell gets much of the credit for the Jazz's success offensively, it's Rudy Gobert who gets the credit for setting the tone defensively. With him on the court this season, Utah limited teams to 97.7 points per 100 possessions. With him on the bench, that figure skyrocketed to 105.0. It was a similar case in their first-round series against the Thunder, as the Jazz held them to 98.9 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the court compared to 105.9 without him.
Having finished the regular season behind only the Warriors in offensive rating, the Rockets will now put those numbers to the ultimate test in their second-round matchup with the Jazz. If Gobert can have similar success defending James Harden and the Rockets as he did Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, it will be harder to ignore his place in the NBA's upper echelon.
Why Gobert, Jazz could give Rockets problems
Gobert's size is what stands out the most about him. Not only is he one of the tallest players in the NBA at 7-1, he's one of the longest. According to NBA.com, his 7-8 wingspan is second to only John Riek, who declared for the 2008 NBA Draft before withdrawing his name, for the largest on record over the last 18 years. That length helped Gobert block 2.3 shots per game this season, putting him behind only Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis on the leaderboard, all while committing less than 3.0 fouls per game.
That's a concern for any team, especially one that drives as frequently as the Rockets do.
However, there is much more to protecting the basket than blocking shots. Gobert contested 7.7 shots per game in the paint this season. The only player who defended more of those shots was Rockets center Clint Capela, though opponents shot 10 percent worse than their average with Gobert protecting the basket as opposed to 5.1 percent worse with Capela protecting it. Once again, Davis and Porzingis were among a small group of players with a greater differential in the paint than Gobert, only they didn't contest the same amount of shots the Jazz big man did.
Being the dominant shot blocker he is, sometimes the threat of Gobert alone is enough to alter shots at the basket. It happened on one particular play in Game 4 of the Jazz's series against the Thunder, when Gobert intimidated Carmelo Anthony into taking a tough reverse instead of an uncontested layup by doing nothing more than standing in the restricted area.
It's something that happens more frequently than it probably should, but players aren't used to challenging defenders with Gobert's size, length and athleticism.
As Quin Snyder explained to ESPN, knowing Gobert will clean up a lot of their mistakes allows the Jazz to be aggressive when defending the 3-point line. Like last season, the Jazz kept opponents off the perimeter this season, especially from the corners, which is one of the most valuable shots in basketball. Instead, they often baited them into settling for shots from midrange, where they made 39.4 percent of their opportunities against the Jazz, and outside of the restricted area, where they made 37.8 percent of their opportunities.
It's why they are better equipped to defend the Rockets than most teams because the shots Mike D'Antoni's teams usually feast on are the ones the Jazz's defense is designed to stop. The Spurs had success against the Rockets in the playoffs last season with a game plan built around running them off the 3-point line, giving them shots from midrange and forcing Harden to finish over length at the rim. With Gobert controlling the paint, the Jazz will likely use a similar blueprint in the hopes of slowing them down.
Given Gobert's ability to contain both the ball handler and roller in pick-and-rolls with his long arms, they might also be able to prevent the switches Harden and Paul look to exploit in isolation. Since the Rockets scored more points in isolation than any other team in the league this season, it's something that could make or break the series for the Jazz.
Why Gobert, Jazz might not have an answer
If the Jazz do take a page out of the Spurs' book, expect Chris Paul to have a big series.
Of the 6.9 midrange shots the Rockets attempted per game as a team during the regular season, Paul was responsible for 3.1 of them. Even though it was far more than anyone else on the roster, it marked a significant decline from his final season with the Clippers, when Paul attempted 5.3 midrange shots per game.
Paul has always been one of the more efficient midrange scorers in the league - he capitalized on 48.5 percent of those opportunities over the last three seasons - so he'll happily take them in volume if they're the only shots the Jazz are willing to surrender.
Harden is more than capable of scoring from midrange, but it's not a shot he takes often. Those looks represented 8.8 percent of his shot attempts on the season, a slight decrease from last season. The difference between the two in that regard is why acquiring Paul made sense for the Rockets from the get-go.
The Rockets will look to counter Gobert's rim protection by making him defend as much space as possible. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah A Moute are both capable outside shooters who can play power forward in smaller lineups (and possibly center), and Ryan Anderson is no stranger to sliding over to the five to give the Rockets the option of playing 5-out.
Gobert will have the option of guarding the weakest 3-point shooter on the court in those situations - likely Tucker or Mbah A Moute - but giving the best 3-point shooting team in the league open looks from the perimeter can have a snowball effect.
Fortunately for the Jazz, lineups with Anderson at center struggled defensively during the regular season. Fortunately for the Rockets, the Jazz finished the regular season sandwiched between the Wizards at No. 14 and Blazers at No. 16 in offensive rating. If the Jazz's plan is to fight fire with fire, they don't stand much of a chance in this series.