May 2, 2018, 11:52 pm
The Utah Jazz built the commanding type of lead few thought they could, then promptly gave it away. It’s what Quin Snyder’s team did next though, that decided Wednesday night’s game at Toyota Center.
The Jazz beat the Houston Rockets 116-108 in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals, absorbing a sustained second-half run that completely erased a 19-point lead before reigning supreme in the final stanza. Joe Ingles led Utah, which had six players score in double-figures, with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting and 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. James Harden brought the Rockets all the way back from that huge early deficit, finishing with 32 points, six rebounds and 11 assists, but struggled in crunch time with the Jazz pulling away. Chris Paul shook off a tough start to score 23 points for the Rockets, and Clint Capela had 21 points and 11 rebounds on 10-of-15 from the field.
But Houston’s best players didn’t get the support they’ve come to expect – especially from the area they normally get it. The Rockets, often rushed by a Jazz defense intent on preventing rhythm jumpers, shot just 10-of-37 from 3-point range. Defenders routinely sat on the high side of Harden, giving him a free lane to the basket with his weak hand, to contest his deadly pull-up triple, resulting in 2-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc. Except for Eric Gordon, his teammates weren’t any better. Houston shot just 10-of-37 from beyond the arc in Game 2, good for 27 percent.
The Jazz made all the threes the Rockets missed. Spearheaded by Ingles, now shooting 50.9 percent from deep on 7.1 attempts per game in the playoffs, Utah connected on 15-of-32 triples in Game 2. Jae Crowder continued his hot shooting streak by going 3-of-6, while Dante Exum, who Houston treated as a non-shooter, went 2-of-3. What made the Jazz’s performance even more impressive than their 110.5 offensive rating suggests is that it came without Donovan Mitchell finding his range; he went just 2-of-8 from beyond the arc.
That didn’t stop the rookie sensation from at times dominating the action, of course. Mitchell finished with 17 points on 6-of-21 shooting, failing to make a two outside the restricted area. But with Ricky Rubio still sidelined by a hamstring injury, Mitchell consistently took advantage of small seams in the Houston defense created by hard rolls, slipped screens and relentless pace. He had 11 of Utah’s 26 assists, and emerged with a game-high plus-minus of +13.
Mitchell also did this as the Jazz extended their lead midway through the fourth quarter.
— NBA (@NBA) May 3, 2018
Mitchell was Utah’s best player in Game 2, but his team would be headed back to Salt Lake City down 0-2 if not for the contributions of Exum and Alec Burks. Exum’s impact loomed far larger than solid numbers of nine points, four rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes off the bench indicate. He made life harder on Harden than any other defender, using his quick feet, long arms and high hands to mostly keep the ball in front and stay in effective rear-view pursuit when beaten. Burks’ performance was no less important, but was highlighted by his work on the other side of the ball. He had 17 points, four rebounds and six assists on 7-of-11 shooting, putting constant pressure on the defense by pushing the ball in transition and attacking switches with speed and aggression.
The Jazz aren’t known for their collective athletic exploits. When Exum and Burks are cogs of the machine, though, they suddenly morph into one of the most high-octane teams in basketball – or at least that’s what transpired on Wednesday night.
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 3, 2018
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 3, 2018
The Rockets weren’t at their best. They were notably listless early, allowing Utah to build a big lead, and eventually lost the verve late that propelled them all the way back from that deficit in the first place. But the Jazz clearly figured some things out offensively in the wake of Sunday’s game, and were disciplined enough on defense in Game 2 to often force Houston into shots Mike D’Antoni usually wants his team to avoid. Utah’s home floor might be the best in the league, too.
This is a series now, thankfully. It resumes on Friday night in Salt Lake City.