The Houston Rockets put on their best defensive showing of the season in Salt Lake City Sunday night, stonewalling the Utah Jazz to take a 3-1 series lead in the conference semifinals.
Chris Paul was resplendent, playing within himself, scoring at will in the midrange and distributing beautifully. He finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds(!), 6 assists and one turnover. Clint Capela was his usual fantastic self until the last two and a half minutes minutes of the game, when he might as well have gobbled up a Mario star because he was invincible in the paint.
He finished with 6 blocks, 5 of which came within 120 seconds of each other. It was breathtaking. He was swatting away Donovan Mitchell layup attempts like they were made by a 10-year-old. He denied 7-foot-2 Rudy Gobert after he attempted a post move. He swallowed up Joe Ingles.
The Jazz had a chance to break through in a game they trailed from wire-to-wire. It was a five-point game with six minutes left. James Harden played a game reminiscent of the conference semifinals against the Spurs last year: baffling decisions on shots and passes with too much dribbling and no ball distribution.
The beauty of it was, it didn’t matter. When the ball found Chris Paul, he found the bottom of the net from the mid-range. Or he found Trevor Ariza in the corner for a timely three-pointer when the Rockets got almost none of them. When the Jazz had the ball, Paul either sniffed it out or funneled to the Swiss wall in the paint.
The Rockets have firm command of this series because of the superlative play of Paul and Capela, but as a team, they played excellent defense. Harden, Tucker and Ariza swarmed Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, the Jazz’s two most dangerous players, and denied them easy baskets. The Jazz one when Ingles got open look after open look. He found little daylight to launch, and shot just 2-of-7 from deep.
Harden was brilliant in the first half, and made huge offensive plays down the stretch. He finished with 24 points and 4 steals, but his 8 turnovers and 1/7 shooting from long range was concerning. He never seemed to find a rhythm. The Rockets have the luxury of being able to overcome that. But considering the other team up 3-1 in the conference semifinals, watching Harden play another mystifyingly poor game was enough to leave this one with a slightly bittersweet feeling.
I, for one, cannot wait to see how Clint Capela matches up with the Warriors. They were able to play him off the floor two years ago. But he was switching comfortably onto Mitchell and forcing him into bad shots. He has had great defensive moments before, but he pitched a near-perfect game on the defensive end, and a player like that makes it so much easier to win a basketball game.
Harden will play better. Chris Paul looked fresh and ready to seize the moment. The Rockets shot 26.7 percent from deep and won by 13 points. For years, the Rockets have lost the ability to shoot from deep and meekly bowed their way out of the playoffs.
This year, when they clank their threes, they buckle down and suffocate the life out of their opponent from the defensive end. The Rockets’ defense has put them on the verge of the conference finals.