The Houston Rockets started fast against the Utah Jazz, sprinting out to an 18-point first-half lead, only to falter down the stretch in the second game of a back-to-back, as they fell to the Jazz 89-87 and out of the playoff seeding.
James Harden set a career high with 8 steals to go along with 26 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists, making him the first Rockets player since Clyde Drexler in 1996 to post 20-plus points, 7-plus assists, 7-plus rebounds and 7-plus steals, but it wasn't enough for Houston.
Harden scored 17 of his points in second half, when most of the rest of the squad disappeared, as every Rocket outside of the Beard combined for just 21 points after the break. Patrick Beverley was the only other Rocket to show up post halftime, as he hit a clutch triple and a runner down the stretch to keep it close.
Dwight Howard crushed a dunk off a pass from Harden to tie the game at 87 with just 20 seconds left, but the Rockets couldn't stop the Jazz in crunch time, as Rodney Hood drove into the paint off a pick and found Derrick Favors under the bucket for a slam and an 89-87 lead. Harden clanked a shot at the buzzer, and that's all she wrote.
This game wasn't always that ugly, however, with the Rockets coming out at the start doing all the things they usually need to do to win:
They initially flashed strong and ended the first quarter with a lead. They played solid defense, holding the Jazz to 30.8 percent shooting in the first half. They protected the ball, with only 7 first half turnovers, and they also had a balanced scoring attack heading into the break, as Harden scored 9 points in the half, with Trevor Ariza, Michael Beasley, Clint Capela, and Donatas Motiejunas scoring 8 apiece.
That all changed in the second half, when the Rockets gave up 50 percent shooting to the Jazz, and gave Harden basically zero help.
One thing that was consistent all night, however, was the Jazz killed the Rockets on the boards. They outrebounded Houston 48-32 and dominated the offensive glass, snagging 13 offensive rebounds to Houston's 4, with a 16 to 9 margin in second-chance points as a result. Favors led the way with 15 rebounds and mostly controlled the paint from start to finish.
Howard did finish the game with 6 blocks for the Rockets (to go along with 5 points and 8 rebounds) and did look intimidating at times, but most of that damage was done in the first half. Howard had just 2 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 blocks after the break.
Ariza was second on the team in scoring with 12 points, while Beasely, Capela and Corey Brewer each had 10.
Gordon Hayward led Utah with 22 points, and they also got 17 from Favors and 16 from Shelvin Mack
The Jazz now move a half game ahead of the Rockets for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West and also tie the season series with the Rockets at 2 wins apiece, extinguishing the any potential Houston tie-breaker. The Rockets have now lost three games in a row, are 2 games under .500, and are reeling down the stretch when they should be turning on the juice.
Well, at least the James Harden "no defense" narrative should quiet down for a night or two after those 8 steals. The Rockets play again Friday night at home against the Toronto Raptors in a must-win contest.