KURT KRAGTHORPE: Jazz can win if Rockets don't heat up
So the Jazz are coming home to EnergySolutions Arena to resume their playoff series Thursday, comforted by the knowledge that they were right there with the Rockets in both games in Houston.
This, then, becomes the issue of the day: What happens when the Rockets start playing well?
Houston's horrible shooting gave the Jazz every chance to win Game 1 or Game 2, but they graciously declined to seize control of either contest. They left the Toyota Center labeling Monday's game, in particular, as "winnable" - one of those words in sports that's both haunting as you look back and promising as you look forward.
"We were close," Matt Harpring was saying in the losing locker room. "We were close."
That repeated description speaks of both validation and missed opportunities. "We played two quality games here," said Andrei Kirilenko, evidently evaluating everybody else.
The Jazz believe they can beat Houston, and they should, to this degree: They are every bit as good as those guys - as long as the Rockets keep playing the way they're playing, which is probably not a sure thing.
Can Houston keep shooting this badly, hitting one-fourth of its three-point attempts? Was combining to make one-third of their shots Monday the worst Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming could possibly do? Those are the biggest questions going forward, not so much what the Jazz need to do.
Not that I'm lacking suggestions for them.
The Jazz have done a lot of good things in two games. There's Harpring's consistency; book him for 14 points on 7-for-14 shooting every night, although a few free-throw attempts would be nice. There's Deron Williams' all-around game, adding rebounding to his skill set. There's Carlos Boozer's recovery from his Game 1 struggles to score 41 points in what would be remembered as an epic performance, except the Jazz lost.
They also could use the following improvements:
- Solve the A.K. problem. I'm talking temporarily, because the long-term subject of what to do with, for or to Kirilenko will hover over the entire offseason. It is stunning to think he was once an All-Star, once the franchise's best player. Someone or something has affected him, beyond the fact the team has added more talent.
This week's solution is to just give him a few minutes here and there, hoping he helps defensively, and play Harpring about three-fourths of the game.
- Get Mehmet Okur going offensively. Or are we going to spend the summer blaming Melisa Okur for the wobbling finish of her father's All-Star season? Memo's game has not been the same since she was born last month, although he did play some outstanding defense against Yao.
Asked if all that effort affected his own offense, Okur replied, "If I say no, it's not true."
Okur also gave Boozer room to launch 30 shots by staying outside and taking only nine shots himself, but he's 4-for-23 in the series. Nobody's calling him "Money" at the moment. He plans to go inside Thursday and work his way back outside, and nothing revs up the home crowd like an Okur three-pointer.
- Avoid the lulls. Sure, it's like expecting a football team to keep scoring on every possession, but the Jazz have had their chances to get the Rockets down and keep them there, and they have to do that at home. If they're ahead by nine at halftime (Saturday) or up by seven late in the first half (Monday), they must "put your foot on the gas pedal," in Harpring's words.
Harpring hopes playing at home will help balance the free-throw totals, after Houston shot 38 of them Monday. He also knows the Rockets have two "great players," the NBA's code phrase for preferential treatment.
The Jazz's problem as the series shifts to Salt Lake City is that the Rockets were almost as good on the road in the regular season as they were at home. Historically, it has also been difficult for the Jazz to win consecutive home games in a series.
Nine times, they have come home in this position, having lost the first two games of a series. Only twice have they won the next two. In nearly every other case, they've won Game 3 and lost Game 4.
So as Marc Iavaroni - yes, Marc Iavaroni - once did, I'm guaranteeing a Game 3 victory for the Jazz. And then it will get interesting. At that point, the Rockets might even have to start making some shots.