In Houston's "must win" Game 2, it was Utah that played as a desperate team. The Jazz gave up no "unmolested" layups, took one good shot after another and scrambled heartily and intelligently on defense and the backboards. Houston might be miffed at a late-game foul call, but the Rockets have only themselves to blame. Houston was beaten by a better team that played with greater intensity and purpose.
Only by raising their intensity level another notch, taking better shots and perhaps shooting better from the free-throw line, can the Rockets do what so few teams did all season -- win a game in Salt Lake City.
For the Rockets to win Game 3, Tracy McGrady will need to score more than one point in the fourth quarter, or get far more than one assist (but he needs teammates to make shots for that to happen). In key parts of the fourth quarter in Game 2, the Jazz posted McGrady only one time on Kyle Korver, and that time T-Mac missed a shot in the lane. It was a good look as Utah chose not to bring a second defender over, and a shot I think McGrady would have made a few times if he was given the chance. But he wasn't.
Instead, the Rockets made him the primary ball handler, running him off ball screens at the top of the key. But he was too tired to explode past either Boozer or Okur, who hedged hard and semi-trapped him. Their size bothered him if he shot or passed (even forcing a key turnover on a Kirilenko-Okur double-team on top). Look for them to run guard-to-guard ball screens, either creating a switch that T-Mac can then use to back his guy down or an easy pass, since the Jazz guards will not bother him as much as their bigs would.
Houston must also get Scola to be more productive, but much of that falls on his shoulders. He's played impatiently on offense, rushing to cut on T-Mac post-ups instead of waiting just a beat more to let Boozer go double and clear from the paint. Also, he is driving into traffic too early in the shot clock, which means Utah still has its big guys clogging the lane. Scola is also letting the Jazz's size bother his finishes, taking one-hand off-balance shots rather than his customary jump shots or jump hooks in the lane. With a little better spacing and some timely cuts, I think Scola and his teammates can play off T-Mac better than they have.
Utah made an interesting choice on offense, playing Boozer almost exclusively at the right elbow and running lots of "UCLA" action rather than its flex stuff. Guard-to-wing passes with the guard running a shuffle cut off Boozer then coming off staggered screens (or using screen-the-cross-screener action) on the other side. It serves to drag Dikembe Mutombo away from the rim (same as Game 1), opening up the paint and getting the other Jazz players involved in the offense. Okur and Brewer had four points total in Game 1, but combined for 26 Monday night, while Boozer had a quiet 13 points on 12 shots. It's clear he doesn't like posting Mutombo, but he's always a threat to drive from the top. Deron Williams loved the UCLA action, hitting two 3s early, then using an Okur ball screen to hit another 3-point bomb when Bobby Jackson went below the screen (a huge mistake when a guy has just hit two straight long shots).
Utah had a sound plan in working McGrady over all game, intending to deplete his energy by the fourth quarter. Rockets coach Rick Adelman had little choice but to take the chance of T-Mac being tired late in the game by letting him carry the offense all four quarters. In his absence, they have little hope of scoring enough to stay with Utah. If Alston plays Game 3, ball screens and the transition game are areas where he can carry some of the load while distributing to others. This will relieve McGrady of some of those tasks to save him for a big fourth quarter.
So that's really what it comes down to: personnel and energy. If Alston plays, it increases Houston's chances of winning a great deal (only if he plays well, naturally). Maybe Adelman will go more to rookie Carl Landry, who is a better athlete than the thus-far unproductive Chuck Hayes. Jerry Sloan is too experienced to allow his team to relax, so we can expect just as much toughness in Game 3 from the Jazz as we have in the first two games of the series. If Alston plays, I would not be surprised to see Houston find a way to win this game. But predicting Utah to lose a home game is not something I'm inclined to do, considering its record there and how well it has played Houston so far.
PREDICTION: Jazz win Game 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.