The Utah Jazz needed a few games to get there, but they finally worked their way into fighting range of the Houston Rockets over the course of their first-round playoff series. The hilarious strategy of defending James Harden’s butt started to yield dividends, and a Rockets offense that scored 122 and 118 points in the first two games of the series averaged just over 98 points a game over the last three. No team is likely to overcome a 3–1 series deficit, but midway through Game 5, with the Jazz hanging tough in Houston, it was possible to imagine this becoming a real series.
And then, in the final 90 seconds or so of regulation, with the game there for the taking, Utah simply choked. It was a one-possession game, and over the course of three possessions, the Jazz stumbled and fumbled and air-balled their way right out of the game, and the series. Just as things were getting interesting!
First, about that butt defense. I realize that Harden’s step-back is devastating, and that forcing him off the three-point line is an absolute imperative, but there’s got to be a more dignified way of taking that on than whatever the hell this is:
Hard as it may be to believe, aggressively grinding his junk on James Harden’s back during a key defensive possession was not actually the worst moment in Ricky Rubio’s night. No, that came about 75 seconds later, when the Jazz raced out in transition and Donovan Mitchell found him wide open in the corner for what would’ve been the go-ahead three-pointer. Rubio had in just the prior Jazz possession knocked down a clutch pull-up jumper to make it a one-point game. Here was his moment. Time slowed down; the music was swelling. Here’s what happened:
Yeesh. But the Jazz were not out of chances! Houston’s P.J. Tucker was fouled on the defensive rebound, and missed both the ensuing free throws, giving the Jazz the ball back with the same one-point deficit, and more than a minute still on the clock. Utah worked the ball to Mitchell at the top of the key and used a Royce O’Neale screen to get him onto James Harden, who had five personal fouls. Advantage: Utah! Another big moment, another huge opportunity to take a late lead:
Eric Gordon made a terrific play digging down off of O’Neale to swipe the ball away from Mitchell, but it’s also true that Mitchell, who shot a putrid 4-of-22 in this game and had five turnovers, was so committed to forcing his way into the paint that he missed an opportunity to hit either O’Neale or Jae Crowder, both of whom were wide open along the arc. It’s a little unfair to blame Mitchell much for what is an excellent bit of help defense from Gordon, but drawing defensive help from the perimeter is, in the modern NBA, as good a reason to force your way into the paint as just about any shot you generate at the end of your drive.
Tucker was again fouled in the backcourt, stopping the clock and forcing free throws. This time Tucker made them both, but this was still a one-possession game with plenty of time on the clock. The Jazz didn’t need a three, but anything other than a three would need to happen very quickly in order to preserve enough time for another chance at a game-tying or -winning bucket. The good news is, what happened happened quickly; the bad news is, this is what happened:
And that was more or less that. O’Neale fouled Harden on the play—ruled a block and not a turnover, but functionally a turnover—and Harden sank both freebies, and the Rockets won. For the Jazz, the glass-half-empty take says the Rockets won two of the last three games in this series despite Harden shooting a combined 21-of-65 from the floor and 11-of-37 from the arc, which means the Jazz were less close than they appeared. The glass-half-full take says the Jazz really did hit on the right combination of defensive looks to turn Harden into a jittery, frustrated, inefficient scorer, and if they’d been able to make a higher percentage of their own open looks—by my count they missed something like nine billion open corner three-pointers in this series—they might be headed to Utah with the series lead and a chance at advancing. There’s probably some truth in both perspectives, but it will be hard for the Jazz to take much consolation from this result when their last good chances were squandered so brutally.
The good news is, this series produced what it was supposed to produce, which is a healthy Rockets team to face the Warriors in the second round of the playoffs. Yes, that assumes the Warriors will advance past the pesky Clippers later Wednesday night or possibly in a Game 6 or 7, but despite their uneven history with 3–1 series leads, that’s a pretty safe assumption. The Warriors will not do any of the same favors for Houston that Utah did in this series, but it remains to be seen whether they will defend Harden’s butt cheeks with the same enthusiasm.