James Harden, Rockets Eliminate Donovan Mitchell, Jazz in Game 5 Win

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2019

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first half in Game 5 of an NBA basketball playoff series, in Houston, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets ensured they wouldn't be on the wrong side of history by finishing their first-round playoff series win over the Utah Jazz with a 100-93 victory in Wednesday's Game 5 at the Toyota Center.

Utah was attempting to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 deficit, but it failed to build on its Game 4 win and had its season come to an end.

James Harden was only 3-of-12 from deep with five turnovers, but he finished with 26 points, six assists, six rebounds, four blocks and three steals in a balanced showing. Clint Capela notched a double-double with 16 points and 10 boards, while Eric Gordon (15 points and four made three-pointers) and Chris Paul (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals) provided support.

Utah had an opportunity to win down the stretch, but three straight possessions ended in a Ricky Rubio air ball and two consecutive turnovers. Donovan Mitchell was an ugly 4-of-22 from the field for 12 points and five turnovers.

          

Passing Jazz's Defensive Test Proves Rockets Ready to Upset Warriors

Give the Jazz credit: They provided the Rockets with a unique defensive test and may have given the Golden State Warriors ideas for their upcoming second-round series.

They held Harden scoreless in the first quarter, and his frustration was clear when he got in Jae Crowder's face after he committed an offensive foul. Utah was essentially taking away his left hand by playing next to him and funneling him into double-teams instead of attacking him straight up.

The Jazz also had defenders stand directly behind him at times to take away his patented step-back three-pointers.

There was no reason for the Jazz, who boasted the league's second-best defense during the regular season, to change their strategy after Harden was 3-of-20 from the field in Game 3 and turned it over eight times in Game 4. He missed his first five three-pointers in Wednesday's contest, came up short on a dunk and struggled to create any open looks from deep.

Despite all of that, the Rockets led at the half and prevailed because of their swarming defense that consistently challenged Utah's outside shooters (9-of-38 from deep) and a varied offensive approach.

Houston appeared to unlock Utah's defensive approach during a 21-5 run in the late second and early third quarter.

Harden sought out transition opportunities to avoid the traps and relied more on Houston's role players. At times, he would dump it to Capela when double-teams came, and the big man would swing it to an open PJ Tucker or Gordon in the corner. Harden also passed directly to the corner before the recipient would swing it back to the top of the key.

Although he wasn't racking up the same numbers he did while finalizing his MVP push, he was initiating the offense with skip passes and hockey assists with so many defenders chasing him.

Harden still looked for his shot—his 26 field-goal attempts were the most on his team—but the fact that Gordon, Capela and even Danuel House Jr. were making pressure-packed plays against a unique defensive approach suggests the Rockets are as ready as ever to defeat the Warriors.

The role players were largely missing in action during a Game 7 loss in last year's Western Conference Finals when the Rockets shot 7-of-44 from deep. They should be far more confident this time around after Utah forced them to take on additional responsibility by taking away Harden's strengths.

What's more, Harden attacked the basket with a floater in crunch time when Rubio lined up behind him to take away the step-back. He will surely look to that shot during the Warriors series if they employ a similar tactic, and he proved he can hit it with the game hanging in the balance.

For as talented as the Warriors are, they were vulnerable on defense this season. They were 11th in the league in defensive rating and could look to the Jazz's approach as something of a blueprint to neutralize Harden.

Fortunately for the Rockets, they passed such a test against a better defense than Golden State's and relied on more than just their MVP candidate's individual brilliance in the process.

Houston could have been the defending champion if Paul didn't suffer a hamstring injury last spring and miss the final two games of the Western Conference Finals after his team seized a 3-2 series lead on the Warriors.

The Rockets are more prepared this time around with battle-tested role players, the league's best scorer and the confidence that comes with passing a test against the Western Conference's premier defense. They've now developed a game plan should they see such an approach again, too.

Golden State is officially on notice.

           

What's Next?

Houston turns its attention to the second round, where it will likely play the top-seeded Warriors when the two-time defending champions advance past the Los Angeles Clippers.

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