• One year ago, the Houston Rockets almost certainly would have lost Game 5. On Tuesday night, though, Chris Paul provided an ailing James Harden all the help his team needed to finish off the Utah Jazz.

    Houston overcame a stunning third-quarter from Donovan Mitchell to re-take control late, winning Game 5 112-102 to become the first team in basketball to advance to the Conference Finals. Paul, brilliant from the opening tip and at his best when it mattered most, burgeoned his big-game reputation with a playoff career-high 41 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and zero turnovers on 13-of-22 shooting and 8-of-10 from beyond the arc. Harden, battling an illness, needed 22 shots to score 18 points, but shook off those struggles late to help the Rockets come back from a blown lead in the third quarter. P.J. Tucker, with 19 points, five triples and three blocks, was huge for Houston in a decisive fourth quarter, too. Donovan Mitchell, by the way, is the only reason it mattered at all.

    The rookie poured in 22 points of his own and accounted for 29 of Utah’s 32 total points during an awe-inspiring third quarter, turning his team’s eight-point deficit into a three-point lead entering the final stanza. Less than two weeks after eliminating the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 39-point outburst that showed off the breadth of his highlight-reel offensive repertoire, Mitchell tried his damndest to keep Utah’s season alive with spinning drives, scooping finishes and splashed 3-pointers.

    Unfortunately for the Jazz, Paul, vying for his long-awaited first trip to the Conference Finals, just refused to let the Rockets lose. He came around a baseline screen and stepped behind a dribble hand-off for three on Houston’s first possession, and found Tucker for a triple on the next trip down, prompting a timeout by Quin Snyder. Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Utah’s lead, once up to five, had vanished entirely. That the Jazz nearly got it back with Mitchell in the locker room is a testament to their season-long will in the face adversity.

    Mitchell’s debut campaign ended prematurely when he banged knees with Harden with just over seven minutes remaining. The Jazz, at that point down 92-87, closed to within a point of the Rockets on a three by Royce O’Neale, who capped a breakthrough rookie season with 17 points, two and-a-half minutes later. That’s when Paul shut the door on Utah’s season for good. Following the lead of Mitchell, the future Hall of Famer scored 12 of Houston’s final 15 points over the final four minutes and 34 seconds of action. The remaining three points came on another triple by Tucker, courtesy of Paul, with 35 seconds left, putting a lasting end to Utah’s last-gasp comeback bid.


    After the game, Paul and Mitchell, the latter of whom returned from the bowels of Toyota Center to catch the final moments of action, shared an on-court embrace. The future Hall of Famer and the Jazz’s new franchise player first grew close last spring, when Paul, after a workout, advised a nervous Mitchell to keep his name in the NBA draft.

    “That’s like my little brother, man,” Paul said after the game. “I told him, ‘Hell of a series. Get healthy.'”

    The future is bright for Utah. Mitchell is a legitimate superstar. Rudy Gobert, far better in Game 5 after being thoroughly outplayed by Capela 48 hours ago, is under contract for multiple seasons, and so is Joe Ingles. Ricky Rubio has one year left on his contract, and was playing the best basketball of his career before succumbing to a hamstring injury while closing out the Thunder. O’Neale is a keeper, and Dante Exum showed major flashes over the last seven weeks after missing the majority of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. A tough decision looms on Derrick Favors, an unrestricted free agent.

    But now is not the time to analyze the Jazz’s future, nor how the offseason will affect it. The Rockets are still alive, and all signs point to a showdown with the Golden State Warriors the basketball world has been craving since November – one Paul made certain would come as quickly as possible.

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