After he watched the Utah Jazz steal home-court advantage away from his team in Game 2 on Wednesday, Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni chalked his team’s disappointing effort up to feeling fat and happy after cruising to victory in the first game of the second round.
“You get lulled into sleep,” he told reporters. “You think this stuff’s easy. It’s not easy. This is the NBA. This is the [conference] semifinals. We kind of got lulled into it, and we paid for it.”
On Friday night, the Rockets were wide-freakin’-awake when they took the alternate court in Utah, and they seemed to relish the chance to remind those who’d been inspired to doubt just how much damage they’re capable of doing.
James Harden and Eric Gordon each scored 25 points, Chris Paul kept the ball on a string and the vaunted Jazz defense off-balance, Clint Capela dominated the paint, and the Rockets led by as many as 38 points on their way to a devastating 113-92 Game 3 win that, frankly, wasn’t nearly as close as even that final indicates. Two days after coming up short, the Rockets roared to take back home-court advantage and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 tips Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
Harden added 12 assists, four rebounds, two steals and a block to his 25 points, while Paul chipped in 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists and a steal. Both played 31 minutes; they totaled one turnover. The scary thing, if you’re a Jazz fan? They combined to shoot 14-for-34 from the field and 3-for-15 from 3-point range … and Utah still spent most of the second half down by 30.
While Houston fired on all cylinders on Friday, the Jazz just couldn’t seem to get anything right for the bulk of the contest, thanks in large part to a swarming Rockets defense reducing Utah postseason heroes Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles to rubble.
The Rookie of the Year hopeful, such a vital source of offense and playmaking during the first-round win over Oklahoma City and in the Game 2 victory, was held to 10 points on 4-for-16 shooting with just three assists and three turnovers; Utah was outscored by 31 points in Mitchell’s 31 minutes of work. Aussie sharpshooter Ingles was similarly stifled, managing just six points on 2-for-10 shooting with five rebounds and five turnovers in his 31 minutes.
Shooting guard Royce O’Neale, starting in place of the injured Ricky Rubio, led the way with 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting with five rebounds. Reserve guard Alec Burks offered a second-unit spark for the second straight game, scoring 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting with four rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench. All of that, though, was far too little and far too late to matter much in the face of a suffocating and total performance by the Rockets on both sides of the ball.
The crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena was ready to explode from the opening tip, and seemed ready to ascend to a higher plane of existence when Ingles kicked off the game by drilling a 3-pointer off a feed from power forward Derrick Favors to give Utah an early lead. The Jazz would hold that lead for 40 seconds, and would never lead again.
After a sluggish defensive outing in Game 2 that allowed Mitchell to get untracked as a facilitator and Utah’s big men to feast with easy baskets at the rim, Houston cranked up the defensive intensity from the opening minute. Gone were the half-hearted switches and step-slow swipes as ball-handlers drove past, replaced by attentive ball pressure, on-time rotations and active hands aimed at wreaking havoc. Houston racked up eight steals and seven blocks in Game 3, forcing 16 Jazz turnovers that turned into 19 Rockets points.
Four of those turnovers came in the first five minutes, as Harden, Capela (11 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocks, two steals) and swingman Trevor Ariza (11 points, three assists, two steals) began using their long arms, quick feet and smarts to shut down passing lanes and force Mitchell and Ingles to try to make plays through traffic. They couldn’t, and with Rubio still sidelined by a hamstring injury, Utah’s offense got stuck in the mud early, allowing the Rockets to race out in transition and hunt good looks all over the floor on their way to a 19-5 lead midway through the opening quarter.
In addition to their defensive adjustments — switching the slipped screens that got the likes of Favors and Rudy Gobert dunks in Game 2, better physicality at the point of attack — the Rockets also zagged on the other end to great effect on Friday.
For years, Houston’s been a team that hunts shots at the rim or from behind the 3-point line, and that tends to avoid shots from between the restricted area and arc at all costs. But with Utah selling out on the perimeter to run the Rockets off the line, and with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Gobert parked in the paint to deter those who reach the front of the rim, Rockets like Paul, Harden and P.J. Tucker opted to take what the defense gave and fire away when a good look presented itself from the midrange. The result: a sparkling 13-for-23 mark on “floater range”/short midrange shots, according to Cleaning the Glass, with the shots often lofted just beyond the reach of Gobert and Favors before they softly fell through the net.
That’s not the way D’Antoni and the Rockets want to play, of course, but it proved an effective counterpunch on Friday, providing nearly as much point-producing value as their forays to the rim, where they went 15-for-22. Those midrange looks, the 3-pointers and layups generated by pushing in transition, the open jumpers created by Harden working his way into the teeth of the defense to draw help before kicking the ball out — Houston had absolutely everything going early, building a 20-point lead in less than nine minutes to knock the Jazz back on their heels.
And even with that cushion, the Rockets kept their foot on the gas, hauling back in transition after their rare misses and contesting everything, intent on preventing the Jazz from drawing a free breath and giving the home crowd any reason to get excited. (Not that it mattered all that much: the fans in the stands were screaming and cheering with the Jazz down 20.)
“We came out with the right type of spirit and energy that we were lacking in Game 2,” D’Antoni told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano during an interview between the first and second quarters.
They kept that spirit up early in the second, and again, it started on the defensive end. Capela completely locked down the rim, annihilating a Favors attempt at the basket on one possession, altering a Jae Crowder driving layup to send it awry on the next trip, and then snuffing out a would-be Gobert dunk on the third, demoralizing Utah in much the same way Gobert did to Jazz opponents all season long.
Utah’s lone spark came midway through the second quarter, when O’Neale — an undrafted free agent out of Baylor in the 2015 draft, who started his career overseas and was playing in the G League in November before getting called up and working his way into Quin Snyder’s rotation — followed a pair of Jonas Jerebko free throws by scoring seven straight points to cut the deficit to 15 with 6:01 to go in the opening half.
The Rockets wouldn’t even let that brief bit of sunlight stand, though. On the next play, Capela and Harden worked a give-and-go that ended with an emphatic Capela dunk. Two possessions later, Harden pulled up behind a screen from about 30 feet out and launched a shot, in one of his patented attempts to draw a foul on a defender trying to fight his way over the pick. The whistle didn’t blow, but it didn’t really matter, because his weird heave of a bomb found the bottom of the net, pushing the lead back to 20, where it would stay for most of the rest of the half … until a Gordon 3-pointer with 48 seconds to go put Houston up 70-40 entering intermission.
Suddenly, the crowd in Salt Lake City didn’t sound quite so enthusiastic anymore, and suddenly, the Rockets once again had control of the series. Now we find out whether Snyder and his coaching staff have another wrinkle to throw at the Rockets to short-circuit their increased defensive aggression, to get Mitchell some clean looks off the ball, and to once again get Ingles some space to rise and fire. If they can’t, the Rockets could exit Utah on Sunday looking to close out the Jazz back at home in Game 5.
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