SALT LAKE CITY — In Game 2 in Houston, the less-heralded, less-talented Utah Jazz did everything right in order to turn what plenty of basketball observers expected to be a Houston Rockets series rout into a second-round series that suddenly seemed tantalizing. The Jazz jumped out of the gate in Game 2 with high energy, taking a 10-point lead partway through the first quarter. They found a player other than Donovan Mitchell to run the offense through in Joe Ingles, who went off for a career-high 27 points on an array of open 3s, off-the-dribble 3s, and step-back jumpers. They beat the Rockets by essentially being the Rockets, scoring with high efficiency at the rim and from 3, where the Jazz went a blistering 15-of-32, while eschewing nearly all mid-range shots. It certainly helped that Dante Exum played lockdown defense on James Harden, and that the Rockets couldn’t buy a bucket.
In Game 3 on Friday night in Utah, in front of a sold-out home crowd that turned Vivint Smart Home Arena into what felt like a raucous college gym at tipoff, the Jazz had a chance to turn this series on its head. They had a chance to put the NBA’s best regular season team on notice that what wins games in February doesn’t always win games in May. They had a prime opportunity to show the Rockets that a well-knit team based on a suffocating defense and a sharing offense could kill the playoff dreams of one of the NBA’s best offenses of all time.
And in every imaginable way, the Jazz came out and did everything wrong.
The 113-92 shellacking wasn’t a Rockets explosion so much as a Jazz implosion. Houston has a way of scoring a ton of baskets in a hurry and pummeling teams into submission from beyond the 3-point line. This was not that. Sure, Eric Gordon had a helluva game for the Rockets — 25 points on 13 shots — but Houston only shot 11-of-36 from 3. The Rockets won despite avoiding the primary concept Mike D’Antoni’s offense: No mid-range shots. Nearly a third of the Rockets’ shots on Friday night were mid-rangers.
But the Jazz? UGH. Nothing went right. Remember when they came out guns blazing in the first quarter of Game 2? Well, they were firing blanks in the first quarter of Game 3. Ninety seconds into the game, after the Rockets hit two transition 3s, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder called a timeout. He sensed something was going wrong. And less than nine minutes into the game, the Jazz were down 20. In the first quarter, the Rockets made 16 shots and had zero turnovers; the Jazz made eight shots and had six turnovers. Coming off the finest performance of his career, Ingles turned in a 2-of-10 stinker, with five turnovers and seemingly zero confidence at driving into the teeth of the Rockets’ defense. Mitchell had one of his worst games as a pro; he forced up far too many ugly, contested shots, including a first-quarter airball in the face of smothering James Harden defense (yes, you read that right: “smothering James Harden defense,” which was a recurring theme all game).
“The shots I missed were terrible shots — they weren’t good looks — and I can’t do that,” Mitchell flogged himself afterward. “I would have been better off just not showing up, and that’s what I did — I didn’t show up.”
Mitchell finished 4-of-16 for 10 points, but he was actually a good bit worse than that stat line indicates. This game was over by halftime, with the Rockets up 30 — and at halftime, Mitchell had exactly two points, and had made 1-of-10 shots.
“We just adjusted our attitude, energy and spirit and did it,” D’Antoni said. “Our defense was superb. And then we were hitting shots — kept the crowd out of it, kept them on their heels. You could just see the guys feeding off of good defense after good defense.”
This wasn’t the Jazz channeling John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong out there. This was the Jazz channeling Kenny G — and putting on a bumbling Kenny G performance at that.
It was the Rockets who certainly forced that dud of a performance from the Jazz: Clint Capela blocking four shots, and Trevor Ariza playing dynamic perimeter defense that resulted in him being plus-40 in 27 minutes.
“They did what they can do,” Snyder said afterward. “For us the margin for error is not that great. They were focused and determined to do what they wanted to do, and we didn’t provide enough resistance.”
It can be tempting to look at a blowout like this as a momentum-shifter that can send an entire series toward an early end. Perhaps it is — though I can’t imagine the Jazz coming out so listless before a home crowd once again in Game 4. As good as the Rockets looked, and as awful as the Jazz looked, this was not a “put-a-fork-in-them” moment for the Jazz. All you have to do is look back to Game 2 to see what this Jazz team is capable of.
But on Friday night the Rockets also reminded us what they’re capable of: A team that certainly can score buckets in bunches, but even when they’re not perfectly zeroed in on their offensive game — like in Game 3 — they can still play some surprisingly dominant defense. For as much as this Rockets team is known for its offense — for as much of an internet meme “James Harden defense” has become — the Rockets actually had the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the NBA this season. And Harden proved all through Game 3 that when he’s dialed in on defense, he can actually be a very positive force.
Maybe this Rockets momentum carries into Game 4. If it does, this series is over. I feel like the Jazz have one more counterpunch left in them. But if the Rockets can keep playing energetic team defense like they just did — well, watch out, Golden State, because you’re about to step into one helluva series.