Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today

If Healthy, Ricky Rubio Will Cause Rockets Problems

Rockets must find a way to control Utah's point guard

April 12, 2019 - 8:57 pm

By Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane)

Ricky Rubio was a big reason why the Utah Jazz advanced to take on the Rockets in last year's Western Conference Semifinals. In the first five games of Utah's first round series win over Oklahoma City, the Jazz point guard averaged 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.8 assists, which includes a game three triple-double, but Rubio strained his hamstring in the first quarter of game six, which held him out of the entire series against the Rockets. Rubio should be back this time around, and for that Rockets, that's a problem.

“He’s their playmaker," Rockets guard James Harden said Friday. He’s their point guard. He gets them going."

A quad injury that has held Rubio out for all but five minutes over the Jazz's last five games of the regular season has thrown his availability into question, but he did practice Friday, and if Quinn Snyder elects to hold him out of game one, game two isn't until Wednesday, so it's safe to say the Spaniard will be heard from at some point.

"He's been an underrated point guard probably for a long time and last year, they didn't have him," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He's formidable and he's tough."

Rubio's numbers don't jump off the page by any stretch. During his second season in Salt Lake City, the 28-year old averaged 12.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game. He's a 40 percent shooter from the field, and a 31 percent shooter from long distance, but don't let the numbers fool you. He makes stuff happen for a team that is bereft of playmaking, outside budding star Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz will enter this postseason tied for the NBA's best offense since the All Star Break, scoring 114.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That number goes up to 115.5 with Rubio on the floor, and down to 111 when he sits. 

"Just like any great point guard, he is that, he has a great ability to pass the basketball and get in the paint and finish," D'Antoni said.

That ability to get in the paint should be of concern to the Rockets and their switching defense. They've had trouble staying in front of quicker guards, and Rubio fits that bill to a tee. He averages 12 drives per game, according to NBA.com, second most on the Jazz and 20th most among players that have played at least 60 games. The thing is, Rubio doesn't look to score. His goal is to make plays by breaking down his opponent's defense. 

While Rubio can't shoot, the Jazz surround him by guys that can. Their most effective lineup will likely be the five that start games in this series. Snyder likes to play Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors together, but the Rockets torched that pairing last season by 56 points in 70 minutes. Instead, a majority of the minutes will go to Rubio, a center, and three wings, all of whom will be capable three-point shooters. 

"Trying to keep him out of the paint is going to be a big key,” D'Antoni said, and when Rubio finds his way in the lane, or gets a step on his man, and collapses the defense, the other four guys on the court are threats no matter where they're standing.

“He’s a smart player, Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. "He knows how to get everybody involved, and he’s a very good pass first point guard. When he gets in the paint he keeps his dribble alive, and knows how to find everybody, so he’s definitely someone we have to keep under control.

“They got shooters. They got a bunch of guys that can shoot the ball, and you got (Rudy) Gobert in (the paint). The way we play, with switching, try to keep our matchups as much as possible, so we can still have people to fight him down there in the paint.”

Gobert is the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a favorite to win it again, but this season he turned himself into a force on the other end of the floor. 

Gobert's shot chart from last season (left) might look better because of the extra green, but if you look at the numbers you'll see that not only are more of his shot attempts coming from inside the restricted area, he's making more, and with Rubio's ability to get him the ball he is to the Jazz what Clint Capela is to the Rockets. 

And can still hit you, even when you think you've done everything right. 

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the Jazz's two best players, but in this series against the Rockets, Ricky Rubio might be their most important player. If the Rockets can keep him under control this could be a very quick series, if not, buckle up.