After watching the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers take care of business, I certainly hoped that the Rockets could do the same thing in their Game 5. But the Utah Jazz are not the Nets or Magic, and I think this series (along with OKC’s utter failure) truly showed that they are the third best team in the Western Conference.
But they went up against the second (and hopefully first) best team. Utah managed to bring the game closer to their own terms than the Rockets, and turned much of this game into a defensive rockfight than a scoring fest. But the Rockets are no defensive slouches themselves either, and made the right plays on that end down the stretch to seal the victory.
More than just Harden
In the beginning, it felt like Houston could blow this game open at the start as they got out to the early 8-0 lead in the first two minutes. But for the next 15 or so on court minutes, Utah’s interior length and size gave the Rockets serious problems. James Harden was clearly intimidated at the prospect of going into the paint and battling Rudy Gobert, yet found himself struggling to make threes thanks to Ricky Rubio and Royce O’Neale playing behind James. You had Mario Elie of all people arguing that Harden should adjust to the defense and start taking more mid-range shots.
Harden started 0-6 and 1-11 from the field, though he began to heat up late in the second quarter. But the game ball goes to the other Rockets, particularly Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. Gordon shot nearly 50% from long range for the series and had the defensive assignment on Donovan Mitchell, while Capela took advantage of Gobert being focused on Harden to get dunks and putbacks. Capela being back to his old level after the Game 4 mess was the single biggest difference tonight.
The Rockets fell behind in the second quarter, and it really felt like for a moment that the Jazz really might pull away. But then Harden woke up, and the Rockets started hitting from long range to help regain the lead. Houston entered the half with a 46-42 lead, and then stormed out to a 12-point lead which looked like would blow this game open in the way many fans hoped and expected.
But the Jazz kept fighting, and you have to give kudos to their inability to quit as they steadily clawed their way back into this game. O’Neale led the Jazz with 18 points, with more than a few coming off of quick drives slipping past unaware defenders. Rubio had a strong scoring game for him with 17 points, and Favors gave Houston trouble with his size and athleticism.
It was a close game and the Rockets did just enough to win. But the fact is that the Jazz lost this series as much as the Rockets won it, and O’Neale being your leading scorer is not quite the ideal scenario. Utah had the ball down 94-93 with around 50 seconds left, and they swung the ball around to a wide-open Ricky Rubio who took the 3-pointer from the left corner. Airball.
Yes, the Rockets made key defensive plays throughout the game. Tucker in particular was fantastic as he was everywhere and recorded 3 blocks including a Dwight Howard-esque swat into the seventh row. Harden had quick hands with a key strip on Gobert in the clutch, and the Jazz had 15 turnovers. Donovan Mitchell scored just 12 points on 4-22 shootings.
But the Jazz had their chances to win, and they missed open 3-pointers throughout this series. The Rockets cannot play like they did against Utah and hope to stay competitive with Golden State.
The playoffs are the time to make rotation adjustments, and we witnessed Mike D’Antoni make a few tonight. First, he eschewed Kenneth Faried and had Nene take the court for the first time in this series. Nene is slow and struggles to guard wings on the switch, but he has the size to keep Favors and Gobert off the offensive boards and had a solid game. But Rockets fans know that Nene will almost certainly not see minutes against Golden State. Maybe he could take spot minutes against Bogut, but that is unlikely.
The wing rotation is more important for both tonight and in the next round. Gerald Green was awful in the second quarter. He clanked two typically Gerald Green shots, but his defensive effort against the Jazz was the big problem. His communication and position were one bad, with one sequence causing him and Harden leaving Jae Crowder free to stroll into the lane for a dunk.
D’Antoni went with Danuel House instead, who was serviceable on the defensive end despite some of his own mistakes and scored 7 points on 2-3 shooting. We know that D’Antoni will likely shorten the rotation further against the Warriors, and House over Green would be an improvement.
But the Warriors are not in the first round yet, and the Rockets are in the second round having vanquished their old rival yet again. It is time to celebrate for a bit until thinking of the next round.