Utah’s tough defense excelled against almost everyone in the league this season.
The Jazz could not Travis Frederick Jersey
, however, find a way to slow down Houston’s high-powered offense.
Utah tied for first in the league in the regular season by allowing just 99.8 points per game, but the Rockets averaged 116.3 points against the Jazz in a 4-0 sweep of the season series.
Now the Jazz will get another shot at the top-seeded Rockets when they open the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday after outdoing the big three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to eliminate the Thunder in Game 6 on Friday night.
Utah had no answer for MVP front-runner James Harden in the regular season. He averaged 34.3 points against the Jazz, highlighted by a 56-point performance in a 137-110 win in November that set a career-high he has since bested.
”They’re such a unique team,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. ”We have to compete, (that’s) the main thing. … They’re so good. They’ve been the best team in the league all year. They’ve beat us. We know how good they are.”
Despite their success against Utah, the Rockets raved about what the team has done in limiting many of the NBA’s top offenses, with Harden saying they are a ”very, very, very good defensive team.”
The Jazz don’t do anything exotic. Harden said it’s simply good, fundamental basketball.
”They’ve got scrappy defenders and they funnel everything to (Rudy) Gobert,” Harden said. ”A 7-foot-2 guy that’s top-3 in shot-blocking and contesting and making shots tough, so that’s pretty much it.”
Both the Rockets and the fifth-seeded Jazz are in the semifinals for the second straight year. The Rockets, who beat the Timberwolves 4-1 in the first round to advance, lost to the Spurs last season Daryl Johnston Jersey
, and Utah was eliminated by Golden State.
Coach Mike D’Antoni said facing Minnesota’s defense, anchored by Karl-Anthony Towns, was a good warmup for the looks they’ll see against the Jazz and Gobert, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
But in the end, the veteran coach believes the Rockets’ success will have more to do with them than anything the Jazz do.
”We’re going to score,” he said of his team, which ranked second in scoring in the regular season. ”To me it depends on us. I just think that we do what we do against anybody and we’re going to score some points if we play well.”
Some things to know about the Jazz-Rockets playoff series:
Jazz starting point guard Ricky Rubio will miss Sunday’s game with a strained left hamstring. Rubio left Friday night’s game against the Thunder in the first quarter with the injury. The team has not said how long he will be out, but Snyder said after Friday’s game he hoped it wasn’t too serious.
”It’s a tough series and it caught up with him a little bit,” Snyder said. ”But hopefully he’ll be all right eventually. We don’t know the timeline.”
Rubio missed a few games late in the season with soreness in the same hamstring, but had not left a game with the problem in the postseason until Friday.
LUC NEARING RETURN
Houston’s Luc Mbah a Moute, who missed the entire first round after dislocating his right shoulder, returned to practice this week and is making significant progress toward a return. D’Antoni said he’s unlikely to play on Sunday, but that there is a chance he could play in Game 2 on Wednesday.
NO REST FOR THE WEARY
While Houston has had a few days to rest after wrapping up its series with Minnesota on Wednesday, the Jazz face a quick turnaround after eliminating Oklahoma City on Friday night. The Rockets were off Thursday, but went through full practices on Friday and Saturday in preparation for the series. The Jazz did not practice on Saturday and spent the day traveling to Houston.
”We’ll just do what we can to get ready and get out there,” Snyder said. ”Try not to think about being fatigued or anything like that. I don’t think there’s time for that in the playoffs. Get healthy. Try to get our minds right and compete and see where it goes.”
ROOKIE NO MORE
With how Utah’s Donovan Mitchell played in the first round Bobby Massie Jersey
, the Rockets don’t view him as a rookie anymore. The 13th overall pick in the draft out of Louisville scored 38 points in Game 6 to lead the Jazz to the victory.
”Mitchell’s doing things that I don’t think a rookie’s ever done. … (He’s) playing like he’s a 20-year vet,” D’Antoni said.
Houston’s Trevor Ariza, who will spend the most time guarding Mitchell in this series, has seen him grow since the first time he faced him.
”I think he’s definitely gained a lot of confidence,” Ariza said. ”He’s tough. He’s a really good player. You can’t take him lightly.”
The last time the Atlanta Falcons picked an Alabama receiver in the first round of the NFL draft, it worked out pretty well.
So, when Calvin Ridley was still on the board Thursday night at No. 26, they knew what to do.
The Falcons landed another Nick Saban receiver for their offensive arsenal, adding Ridley to a unit led by Julio Jones .
Jones, of course, played at Alabama.
Now, he's one of the NFL's best pass catchers.
Ridley can't wait to team up with him.
"I'm very excited to be coming in with Julio," Ridley said in a conference call, shortly after the Falcons announced their pick near the end of the draft's first day. "I know I'm going to learn a lot from him and become a better player, a better wide receiver. I'm just very, very happy to be in that organization."
His excitement was tempered somewhat by where he was picked in the draft .
Flashing the confidence that is a trademark of all great receivers Brandon Scherff Jersey
, Ridley was clearly surprised that he didn't go much higher.
"I'm going to prove a lot of people wrong," he said. "I'm happy the Falcons selected me, but I could've been picked way before. I'm going to work hard and I'm going to prove everybody wrong who always doubted me. I'm going to make everybody believe."
The Falcons were eager to give quarterback Matt Ryan another deep threat, bolstering an offense that dipped in production last season after leading the NFL in scoring in 2016.
While defensive tackle was a priority, Atlanta couldn't pass up the chance to grab the 6-foot-1, 189-pound Ridley, who managed to stand out even while playing in a run-oriented offense on Alabama's national championship team . As a junior, he had 63 receptions for 967 yards and five touchdowns.
"This is another firepower weapon for us," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "He will mix in very well in our offense."
In 2011, the Falcons pulled off a major trade with Cleveland to move up to No. 6 overall so they could grab Jones. He quickly emerged as one of the league's most dominant receivers, including 88 catches for 1,444 yards last season.
While Mohamed Sanu has put up decent numbers as the No. 2 receiver, he's not the sort of game-changer who can draw coverages away from Jones.
The Falcons feel Ridley has that potential.
"His ability to create separation from the defender is really powerful and explosive," coach Dan Quinn said. "We have a clear understanding of how to feature this guy in our system. We're real excited about the things he can do."
In an interesting twist, the final game of Ridley's college career was at the home of the Falcons. Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted this year's thrilling national championship game , in which Ridley caught a 7-yard touchdown pass that tied the game in the closing minutes of regulation before Alabama defeated Southeastern Conference rival Georgia 26-23 in overtime.
Ridley will also be reunited with Steve Sarkisian Brett Maher Jersey
, who was briefly the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator before taking the same role with the Falcons.
"He was real cool," Ridley recalled. "He was trying to get me that ball, I know that."
While the Falcons had no overly pressing needs after their second straight trip to the playoffs, they were looking to bulk up the interior of the defensive line. Dontari Poe was lost in free agency, signing with division rival Carolina to leave a hole in Atlanta's run defense.
But with Ridley still on the board, the Falcons decided to address those needs later in the draft. They passed on the chance to draft another SEC player, Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who went shortly afterward to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 29.
"We definitely had other guys in our sights," Dimitroff said. "They're both very good football players. In the end, we decided to go with offense."
It was a change of philosophy from the last three years.
Since Quinn came aboard as coach in 2015, defense had been the No. 1 priority. The last three first-round picks were all from that side of the line: defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. in 2015, safety Keanu Neal in 2016 and end Takkarist McKinley a year ago.
Quinn smiled when asked if it was difficult to pass up another defensive player.
"We were prepared to go a couple of different ways," Quinn said. "When this opportunity came about, we felt it was the best one for our team."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at s://apnews/search/paul%20newberry Adidas Taylor Hall Jersey