If I felt like putting a positive spin on tonight’s victory for the Houston Rockets, I could say that it showed this team’s ability to win ugly. How James Harden came through in the clutch at the end, and how this team won through defense, and rebounding, and teamwork. And this is pretty much what Mike D’Antoni said in his postgame press conference.
But that would not be the honest truth. The honest truth is that this game was a ridiculous, miserable slog from just about everyone. Harden was bad, Capela was bad, the offense was bad, the Jazz were bad, and the referees were really bad. Utah had opportunities to blow this game wide open, and Donovan Mitchell had a wide-open three in the final seconds to send this game to overtime thanks to a defensive miscommunication between P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela. As Harden and Chris Paul both had five fouls at that point, it is reasonable to presume that the Jazz would have won the overtime period.
Instead, Mitchell missed, and the Rockets did not win so much as they escaped. What was the cause of this offensive and defensive debacle?
The Referees: Referees in Rockets-Jazz games have always been fair and balanced, from Malone’s bear hug to the nonsense Okur and Boozer got to do against Yao. In tonight’s game, they set the tone early by calling two fouls on James Harden in the first 90 seconds of the game. Harden’s first foul was a dumb foul where he hacked Rudy Gobert right at the rim, but the second was more questionable.
Harden’s struggles certainly cannot be blamed entirely on the referees, which are touched on more below. But the Jazz (especially Donovan Mitchell in the second/early third) got a fair amount of ticky-tack calls to keep them in the game offensively after Quinn Snyder screamed at them for a bit, and Harden and Paul were limited in how hard they could try. There were multiple possessions in the final minutes where Mitchell got matched up with Harden on the switch, and Harden all but escorted Mitchell to the rim to avoid drawing another foul. Then there was that third quarter possession where Harden got tackled by Royce O’Neale and O’Neale only got a common foul.
The only real good news about the refs was that the Jazz shot just 65% from the foul line, though the Rockets only shot 67%. But the constant foul calling and missed free throws truly epitomized how this was a sloppy, ugly game.
Capela: You would think that Capela would shine in a knock-down defensive battle, and he did have 11 points and rebounds. But I would argue that he had the second-worst performance of the night, and Rudy Gobert thoroughly outplayed him tonight. Capela went 1-5 from the line, and then also had two awful outlet passes which were easily picked off. Kenneth Faried was little better, as he strangely bobbled the ball multiple times which gave the Jazz more possessions and played execrable pick and roll defense.
Because Capela and Faried had rough nights, D’Antoni went with P.J. Tucker at the 5 for the first time this postseason. Tucker was one of the few Rockets who played well, grabbing a key offensive rebound towards the end to help seal the game as well as playing better defense overall. But even he had some really bad misses from long range, with two of his four misses being air balls
Harden: Yes, Harden played better in the fourth quarter, with Tim McMahon reporting that he scored 14 points on 3-6 shooting. And this game was not as bad as say, Game 6 against San Antonio or his entire series against Portland in 2014.
But this game was a disaster, and not just because he went 3-20 from the field and played no defense out of an effort to avoid additional fouls. Harden seemed strangely timid and his court vision was off. He made passes when he could have driven to the rim, settled for taking tough three-pointers far too much, and did not move around much when he did not have the ball. ESPN announcers speculated that he may have been exhausted because of Utah’s altitude, which is as good of a guess as any.
Chris Paul really kept the Rockets in the game by making jumpers just when it looked like Utah could put the game out of reach, which makes it all the more bizarre that Harden managed to outscore him. Harden seemed eager in the post game interviews to put this stinker behind him, and maybe it is just better to pretend this did not happen
This was not a good win, nor was it even all that enjoyable given the team’s struggles. But it was still a win and the Rockets are up 3-0 after taking the Jazz’s best shot. Utah simply does not have the offensive firepower to hang with the Rockets even when Houston struggles. Donovan Mitchell had 34 points, but their second best scorer was Derrick Favors with 13. The Jazz missed open three-pointers and free throws throughout the game. Golden State will not miss those shots.
Game 4 will be on Monday at 9:30 Central Time. The Jazz will probably be deflated, and it is time to get out the brooms for a sweep even Rockets fans could not have expected.