Given how badly the Rockets had crushed the Jazz in Games 1 and 2, if news were to come out of James Harden breaking some sort of postseason record during Game 3, the underlying assumption would be that it was related to scoring. That was half-true on Saturday in Utah when Harden set the NBA postseason record for most missed shots without a make, going 0-15 from the field to start the game.
Harden’s inability to score was a noticeable trend early on. He wasn’t getting as many calls as he was used to getting, so his drives to the rim often ended in bad misses. The Jazz’s weird defensive strategy got even weirder as Utah players assigned to last year’s MVP were standing behind him to try and prevent step-back threes once he got past half court—so that move was technically out as on option. That defense was by no means the sole reason for all of his misses, but when it’s the defensive game plan in play during an opponent’s scoring drought from the field, it’s easy for a team to extract confidence from that. This confidence even led to some crowd-popping stops on a player who has gotten officials to blow the whistle as a Pavlovian response to any sudden movement from him.
It’s not as if Harden was unable to affect the game at all. Even if he was missing shots, his presence alone forced the Jazz to always consider him as a scoring threat. Harden also displayed his passing abilities during this shooting drought, and got plenty of assists to teammates who made the shots he couldn’t. It also helped that they had a capable second point guard in Chris Paul.
However, the biggest assistance the Rockets got in trying to make up for Harden’s lack of scoring from the field came from the Jazz themselves. It’s not uncommon for a star to go cold in the postseason, but when that cold star is an MVP candidate—or maybe even a frontrunner for the award—their team’s chances of pulling out a win are usually pretty slim. The caveat, of course, is that the other team has to capitalize on that loss. The Jazz were simply unable to do that. With the league’s top scorer hitting blanks from the field, the Jazz responded with hitting 65.8 percent from the line and 29.3 percent from three. It’s never a good sign when a team can’t use the player-friendly silence from the home crowd to their advantage to hit more free throws.
It was clear that the Jazz also became aware of this issue and they started making more mental errors because of it. An already sloppy offense became even sloppier, everything became rushed and the communication on defense nearly flat-out stopped. That last issue reared its ugly head when Utah allowed Harden’s first bucket of the game to be an easy dunk down a wide-open lane.
The game might as well have been called then and there. Harden finally scoring signaled the end of all the gifts the Jazz had received from the basketball gods. Sure, there were some exciting back-and-forth moments down the stretch, and the game still came down to the final possession—Donovan Mitchell could have sent things to overtime, but missed the wide-open three—but as soon as that seal was broken, there was little doubt as to how things were going to end. The Rockets would win the game 104-101, and Harden’s stat line ended up as 22 points on 3-for-20 shooting (2-of-13 3PT, 14-of-16 FT), 10 assists, and six steals.
As if things weren’t bad enough for Utah, Harden rubbed salt in the wound of the loss in his postgame interview with ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth.
If a player is able to convincingly act surprised when told they had one of the worst shooting nights in NBA history, then that speaks volumes about the opposing team’s efforts to try and contain that player. Might as well cancel Game 4 at this point.