James Harden Continues Torrid Streak, as Rockets Rout Jazz in Game 2
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 17: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a play against the Utah Jazz during Game Two of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 17, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The Houston Rockets took another step toward setting up a postseason rematch with the Golden State Warriors by defeating the Utah Jazz 118-98 in Wednesday’s Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.

Houston now leads 2-0 after winning the first two at the Toyota Center, so Utah will need to respond at home to avoid a quick elimination.

James Harden was brilliant with 32 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists and six three-pointers, while Chris Paul (17 points), Eric Gordon (16 points) and PJ Tucker (16 points) provided support. The Rockets as a whole drilled 17 three-pointers and had an answer every time Utah built any momentum.

Five Jazz players finished in double figures, including Donovan Mitchell (11 points, six assists) and Ricky Rubio (17 points, nine assists, four steals), but they didn’t have enough firepower to counter the home team and shot a lackluster 8-of-38 (21.1 percent) from deep.

           

In-Form Rockets Have Their Best Chance of Beating Warriors

It was downright painful how close the Rockets were to beating the Golden State Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals.

They held a 3-2 lead with Game 7 scheduled at home just to see Paul suffer a hamstring injury and their normally effective three-point shooters go ice-cold in the decisive battle. Even average three-point shooting from Houston would have propelled the team to the NBA Finals.

The Rockets were anything but average in Wednesday’s contest, pouring in 70 first-half points and leaving little doubt who would win this series against the Jazz.

Harden unleashed his full offensive arsenal with his trademark step-back threes, an and-1 three-pointer, a shimmy move that sent Rubio flying, gliding drives through the lane and timely transition opportunities.

Houston would still be beatable if it was just him doing all of the damage, but he didn’t hesitate to facilitate whenever Rudy Gobert committed to his drives on pick-and-rolls. Whenever his shot wasn’t there, Harden simply hit Clint Capela flashing to the rim or the red-hot Tucker and Gordon for open looks on the wing and in the corner.

The Jazz were stuck in a pick-your-poison scenario in which they either committed multiple defenders to Harden and left the dangerous secondary options open or left him on an island with one defender in an unguardable situation. That’s not even mentioning Paul’s ability to do many of the same things as a nine-time All-Star who can create his own looks or put teammates in position to succeed.

With all due respect to Utah, attention has already turned to the potential second-round matchup between the Rockets and the Warriors.

Harden is at the peak of his powers, Paul is less likely to be hurt in the second round than he would be with additional minutes on his legs in the Western Conference Finals and the role players are firing on all cylinders.

What’s more, the Warriors are as vulnerable as they’ve been since the Cleveland Cavaliers stunned them in the 2016 Finals. DeMarcus Cousins is out with a quadriceps injury, and the future lingers over the team. Although Golden State’s small-ball lineups are typically lethal, Capela has enough athleticism to keep up and can work for lobs and offensive boards against Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

As for that future, Kevin Durant has a player option for next season and has been linked to the New York Knicks so much that Frank Isola of The Athletic reported earlier this month he and Kyrie Irving are discussing who will sign first.

Klay Thompson is also scheduled to be a free agent this offseason.

It is human nature at this point for the Warriors to at least have the future in the back of their mind after a run of four straight NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back titles. They didn’t maintain their focus in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers and blew a 31-point lead as a result.

Houston is the team in full control up 2-0, while the champions find themselves in a first-round fight after a stunning loss. If the Rockets are ever going to beat this version of the Warriors, this is the year to do so.

          

Overmatched Jazz Doomed to Early Playoff Exit

The Jazz entered the playoffs on a tear—13-3 in their final 16 regular-season games—and had every reason to be confident after winning a postseason series each of the last two years.

They have a young star in Mitchell leading the way, an impressive defensive force in Gobert anchoring the interior and role players who have been there before after last season’s playoff victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They also have a defense that finished the regular season No. 2 in defensive rating, per NBA.com, and was primed to win at least a series in the Western Conference, if not more depending on matchups.

Utah got a nightmare matchup.

For one, Gobert is sometimes a liability on the court against the Rockets, which is a head-turning development given that he is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year who held opponents to 11.2 percent worse shooting than their normal averages within six feet during the 2018-19 campaign, per NBA.com.

The Rockets do much of their damage from well outside six feet, launching three-pointers throughout the game. They can pull him away from the rim with that shooting in pick-and-pop sets and force him to either honor the majority of the players in the rotation or leave them open and crash on the penetration of Harden and Paul.

The Jazz simply don’t have the personnel to match up with Houston on the perimeter, either.

Rubio and Joe Ingles struggle to stay in front of Harden, and Mitchell isn’t known for his defense. Dealing with the likes of Paul, Gordon and Harden has also sapped Mitchell’s energy on the offensive end, as he shot just 38.9 percent from the field with five turnovers in Game 1 and was 5-of-19 from the field with four turnovers in Wednesday’s contest.

Just like last season when they beat the Thunder but lost to the Rockets in five, the Jazz could have beaten another team in the West—just not Houston.

            

What’s Next?

The series shifts to Utah for Saturday’s Game 3 and Monday’s Game 4.

Read More

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