The Rockets opened up a nearly 40-point lead at one point in the third quarter before going cold and allowing the Jazz to make the final result a mere 19-point margin. But for 30 minutes of game time, the Jazz could not touch the team with the NBA’s best record.
James Harden had 25 points and 12 assists and captained the ship expertly, doing his best job yet in this playoffs of finding shooters all over the arc. Clint Capela wiped the Jazz out of existence on the defensive end with 4 blocks, even more solid contests and 8 rebounds. Eric Gordon finally got hot and stayed hot, tying Harden for the team lead in scoring.
But no one player’s efforts changed the complexion of this game. Unlike in Game 1, when Harden’s 41 points led the charge, the collective was too much for the Jazz to match up with. For the first time, their rookie leader looked like a rookie — thanks to a stifling Rockets defense — and the Rockets wrestled back home court in one of the toughest buildings in the league.
That the win came immediately after the Golden State Warriors also lost by 19 to the New Orleans Pelicans brought a quick reality check to the narrative around the league that developed rapidly: the Warriors were going to cakewalk to the championship once again, because the Rockets were clearly no match for a healthy Golden State team.
The Warriors are still favorites, but the Rockets have yet to lose consecutive games when they’re healthy, road or home. The Rockets have had a maddeningly inconsistent focus and intensity, but for the second time, when they lost a playoff game, they came to the arena for the next game ready to kill, and kill they did.
Sunday night will be another monster game. I don’t expect Donovan Mitchell to shoot 25 percent and Joe Ingles to shoot 20 percent again. But hidden in the delirium of the blowout victory was the fact that the Rockets actually didn’t shoot all that well. Harden and Chris Paul — who was fine with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists — shot a combined 3-of-15 from deep. As a team, they shot just 30.6 percent from deep. That was helped along by a cavalcade of layups and dunks and 90 percent free throw shooting, but the Rockets won on the road by 19 points by, again, not even playing their best.
Which is kind of the point. Are the Rockets capable of coming out flat and winning against good teams? Mostly no. But if they come out ready to perform on the defensive end — the Jazz scored just 40 points in the first half and had an absolutely brutal offensive efficiency — they can make up for any lack in shooting. This has been proven time and again this season. Hopefully the Rockets don’t need another reminder.
Game 4 is 7 p.m. CT on Sunday in Salt Lake City.