The Houston Rockets finished Sunday’s victory to start their second-round series on cruise control, largely coasting in the second half after building a 25-point halftime lead. Well, they’re not going to be able to cruise anymore. The Utah Jazz saw to that on Wednesday, punching the West’s top seed in the mouth, withstanding a hellacious comeback, and throwing another haymaker to get even in the best-of-seven set … and steal home-court advantage away from a Rockets team that spent all season rolling up the NBA’s best record to get it.
Joe Ingles scored a career-high 27 points on blistering 7-for-9 shooting from 3-point range, rookie star Donovan Mitchell dished a career-high 11 assists to go with his 17 points, and the Jazz dominated the final eight minutes to earn an impressive 116-108 win in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Wednesday night. Now knotted at 1-1, the series shifts to Utah for an awfully big Game 3 at Vivint Smart Home Arena — where the Jazz won all three games they played against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1 — on Friday night.
After struggling to score without injured starting point guard Ricky Rubio in Game 1, the Jazz looked much sharper on Wednesday, shooting 52 percent as a team and drilling 15 of their 32 3-point attempts, beating the bombs-away Rockets (10-for-37 from deep) at their own game. And save for a 30-point third quarter during which James Harden took control of the game as a table-setter, Utah’s defense — whether led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert or by power forward Derrick Favors working as a five-man in small-ball lineups — was also on point all night long.
The Jazz limited Houston to 40 percent shooting as a team, and made Harden work hard for his game-high 32 points, thanks in part to aggressive and excellent on-ball defense from X-factor reserve Dante Exum. They stuck close to Houston’s shooters on the perimeter, taking away Harden’s favored drive-and-kick options and forced inefficient outings from key Rockets guards Chris Paul and Eric Gordon (38 combined points on 35 total shots). Most importantly, they clamped down when it mattered most, holding Houston to 3-for-16 shooting with three turnovers in the last eight minutes of game time as Mitchell, Exum and Ingles carried them over the finish line.
It might seem stunning that Utah — scrappy, defense-first, underdog Utah — went into Texas and largely outclassed a 65-win juggernaut. But not if you were paying attention while the Jazz went 31-10 over the second half of the season — the second-best record in the NBA over the final 41 games, behind only these Rockets, with defensive efficiency and net rating marks that both ranked No. 1 with a bullet.
Most of that second-half surge came with Rubio in the lineup. With his barking hamstring keeping him sidelined once again, though, the Jazz needed big outings from other contributors. And man, did Utah get them.
Gobert, a virtual non-factor in Game 1, came through with 15 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and countless other possessions altered as an interior menace when Utah’s perimeter defenders ran Houston shooters off the line and forced ball-handlers into the paint. Jae Crowder, arguably Utah’s best player in Game 1, came up big once again with 15 points, three more 3-pointers, 10 rebounds and aggressive defense, especially as a small-ball power forward when Houston downsized.
The biggest boost, though, came in the backcourt. Needing more ball-handling prowess and creative spark with Rubio unavailable and Mitchell moved from shooting guard to the lead spot, Snyder turned to Exum and Alec Burks, a pair of ex-lottery picks who’ve battled injuries and inconsistency over the years that were supposed to mold them into Utah’s backcourt of the future. The former missed all but 14 games of the regular season after shoulder surgery and frequently overly frenetic against OKC; the latter had played all of six minutes in Round 1 before getting dragged out of mothballs to score 11 points in the Game 6 clincher. But the big, athletic guards rewarded Snyder’s faith.
It seemed clear from the jump that Utah would offer an improved offensive effort. From their first possession, the Jazz moved decisively to attack Houston’s switch-everything defense with quick passes after big men Gobert and Favors slipped their screens and sliced to the basket, early rather than staying put to try to make solid contact with on-ball defenders. That tactical tweak, suggested by at least a couple of smart people in the days between games, seemed to catch the Rockets off guard, allowing the Jazz to operate in the middle of the floor and opening up lanes for passes into the paint.
Mitchell took advantage, looking to facilitate for others rather than create his own shot and dropping pinpoint passes for dunks and layups en route to five first-quarter assists as the Jazz raced out to an early lead. With Mitchell running the show, Ingles stepped up as Utah’s top shotmaker, scoring 11 quick points that would set the pace for his career night:
Even as the first quarter gave way to the second, the Rockets seemed to keep playing like a team that believed it would eventually just be able to score its way to a victory, playing steps-slow-and-confused defense that a team as smart as Utah proved capable of continually picking apart. Mitchell strolled into a pull-up 3 from the top of the key to give the Jazz a 56-37 lead with just under seven minutes to play in the opening half, leading to some grumbles from the crowd at Toyota Center as they began to wonder when exactly the West’s No. 1 seed was going to show up for the fight.
As it turned out, Harden and the Rockets were just fashionably late. (Fitting, considering.) Houston closed the half on a 13-4 run, 12 of which came from a foul-hunting Harden in the final 2:01 of the second quarter, to get within 64-55 at half — within striking distance, provided the Rockets could come out of intermission with something more closely approximating playoff-level intensity.
They did just that. Harden opened the third going to work attacking Mitchell and Ingles off the bounce, forcing the 7-foot Gobert to scramble in space while the MVP favorite set up Paul and Clint Capela (21 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks) for quick buckets. Houston, to a man, also cranked up the defensive effort, holding Utah to just seven points in the first seven minutes of the second half to regain the lead for the first time since it was 6-5, and going up 75-71 on a Harden-to-Capela alley-oop.
But then, Snyder again went back to the Favors-at-the-five small-ball look, and Utah began returning fire. The Jazz took back the lead on a corner 3 by Exum with 3:25 to go that seemed to uncork the Aussie playmaker, who broke down the Houston defense off the dribble on the next two possessions to set Favors up for alley-oop dunks. That late-third rush allowed Utah to keep pace with Houston and exit the third with an 86-85 lead, setting up a fantastic finish.
Looking to charge up his own offense and try to force the mammoth Gobert into uncomfortable territory (and, ideally, off the floor), Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni went about as small as his roster can get early in the fourth quarter, slotting P.J. Tucker — all (allegedly) 6-foot-6 of him — at center alongside Trevor Ariza, Gordon, Harden and Paul. It’s a lineup that only saw 24 minutes of floor time during the regular season, according to NBAwowy.com’s data, but one that scored like gangbusters in limited action, and you could really see why on the beautiful possession that gave the Rockets a 94-92 edge with 8:04 to go:
But the Jazz, as they’ve done for the last three-plus months and as they did all night, just kept coming, with Mitchell and Exum hooking up for a triple that would give Utah the lead for good.
Mitchell would go on to score or assist on 19 of Utah’s final 24 points, none louder or more vicious than his electric putback dunk of his own missed floater with just over six minutes to go …
… and maybe none cooler than his setup for an Ingles corner 3 on the next possession, which he began to celebrate as soon as he made the pass, because he knew he’d read the play perfectly and set up one of the NBA’s elite shooters — somehow, once again, all alone and wide open in the corner — for a pour-it-on bomb:
In Round 1, Mitchell went toe-to-toe with last year’s MVP, and came out ahead. In Game 2, the 21-year-old traded blows in the fourth quarter with this year’s (likely) MVP, and got the win. Wednesday wasn’t all about Mitchell — far from it, given his 6-for-21 shooting night and how brilliantly his teammates carried the load throughout — but he was special when it mattered most. As a result, a Jazz team that was nine games under .500 on Jan. 22 is within three wins of the Western Conference finals … and a Rockets team led by a pair of stars haunted by their share of postseason ghosts must now prove it can handle playoff adversity as well as it did regular-season prosperity.
“So the series is on,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game. “Let’s get it going now.”