Jazz look to continue surprisingly hot start, visit Rockets

A surprising early-season surge continued for the Jazz on Sunday with their 122-121 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans that kept Utah undefeated through three games.

Lauri Markkanen posted his second consecutive double-double (31 points, 12 rebounds) to pace four players in double figures. Utah will now play the second half of a road back-to-back on Monday against the Houston Rockets.

Following the offseason trades of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell that reshaped both their roster and identity, the Jazz shifted to an offense predicated on spacing under first-year coach Will Hardy, a move designed to take greater advantage of their multiple capable ball handlers.

With the likes of Mike Conley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Talen Horton-Tucker available to orchestrate offense and score from the perimeter, spacing the floor should prove advantageous for the Jazz. The offseason remodeling reshaped expectations for Utah, with many presuming the Jazz would aim to tank and improve their draft positioning for next summer.

The unbeaten start has adjusted those expectations, at least inside the Utah locker room.

“Just fighting,” Clarkson said of the approach. “The grit, the grind. We ain’t taking no slogans but we all got a chip on our shoulders. We want to win, we want to compete and play hard, and that’s what we’re doing every night.”

Houston coach Stephen Silas made it clear that rotation fluctuations will be a part of the process for the youthful Rockets, at least early this season. The Rockets were without guard Eric Gordon (rest), center Bruno Fernando (knee) and forward Jae’Sean Tate (ankle) in their 125-105 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday, absences that opened the door for others.

Second-year forward Usman Garuba made just his third career start and delivered a feisty effort in the losing proposition of containing Bucks All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (44 points, 12 rebounds), producing six points and eight rebounds in addition to four steals.

Antetokounmpo was the latest standout opponent to run roughshod against the Rockets’ defense.

The Rockets were torched by the Atlanta backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray in their season opener last Wednesday before Memphis guard Ja Morant exploded for 49 points against Houston on Friday.

Inexperience is an early talking point for the Rockets, who are understanding of their developmental status yet hungry to taste victory after opening the season with three losses.

“We’re a young team,” Garuba said. “Obviously we didn’t get the win. We want to win games even though we’re young. It’s a process but we want to win games. We want to compete every game. It’s a little bit disappointing losing these three games but we’ve got to fight back in the next one. That’s it.”

And although it’s been a slow start for the Rockets, many are feeling like better days are ahead.

“I feel like every game we’ve been fighting but we’ve just got to get out of the way where it’s just in spurts, and we’ve got to put together a whole game,” added rookie forward Jabari Smith Jr., who posted his first career double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) on Saturday. “When we do that, I feel like we’ll be fine.”

–Field Level Media