Houston • Coming into Wednesday night’s game in the Toyota Center against the Rockets, the Utah Jazz had a few big questions to answer:
With Chris Paul out, could they survive the unavoidable onslaught from James Harden by at least mitigating the damage everyone else did?
Could Donovan Mitchell break out of his early-season slump and finally channel his on-court aggression into an efficient performance?
And if they managed to build a lead, could they weather the inevitable comeback attempt borne out of Houston’s sheer torrential downpour of 3-pointers.
Three checked boxes later, the Jazz had earned an impressive 100-89 victory over the Rockets and improved to 2-2 on the season.
“We just came in hungry ’cause of the past two games,” Mitchell said. “… The last two games, we didn’t play like us. As a team, we felt that. So we just came out there playing the way we had been playing last year.”
On the first count, Harden did make his presence felt, scoring 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting, and handing out seven assists. And he did get some help from a vintage Carmelo Anthony, who poured in 22 off the bench.
But as a team, Houston shot just 40.2 percent from the field, and made only 11 of their 40 attempts (27.5 percent) from 3-point range.
“They shoot the ball so well as a team, and we wanted to take the 3 out of the game as much as possible,” said Jae Crowder. “And in order to do that, you have to guard the point of attack, you have to guard the ball. We executed that.”
As for Mitchell, the second-year guard scored 38 points on 14-for-25 shooting.
After seeing his first shot blocked, he remained undeterred, but also focused. On the next Jazz possession, he calmly drained a floater. A few plays later, he nailed a pull-up trey. He had 11 by the end of the first quarter, 19 by the end of the first half, and he never relented.
When not hitting 4 of 9 shots from 3, he was consistently turning the corner on his defender, getting into the lane, and finishing at the rim with an acrobatic contortion.
“When he plays this way, he makes the right decisions and our team [goes up],” said center Rudy Gobert. “He makes plays for others and then things open up for him and he’s able to score.”
Almost unnoticed among Mitchell’s scoring was that he also led the team with seven assists.
“He’s a catalyst for us offensively, guys know that. We can play through him,” Snyder said. “When he’s being aggressive, it’s not just for his shot — which is good, too — but he’s a guy who can make plays, and make plays for other people. We saw that tonight.”
So then, the comeback …
There had to be one, of course.
Halfway through the third quarter, Utah had amassed a 64-48 advantage. By halfway through the fourth, Mitchell made a rare mistake, Harden picked off the ball, fired it downcourt to a streaking Clint Capela for a dunk, and just like that, the lead was down to five, at 84-79.
How would the Jazz respond?
By making plays. A lot of them.
Ricky Rubio got a step on his man and converted a layup at the rim. On Houston’s ensuing possession, Utah played the Harden-Capela two-man set perfectly through every action, forcing a shot-clock violation.
Mitchell and Gobert then ran their own two-man scheme, which culminated in an alley-oop. Then Gobert got his hands in the passing lane for a steal, grabbed an offensive rebound, made it to the free-throw line.
And just like that, the threat was over, and the home fans were streaming for the exits.
“I just wanna win,” said Gobert, whose 12 points and 13 rebounds gave him his 138th double-double — fifth-most in team history. “In those moments when you’re up 10, nine, and there’s two minutes left, you have to make those plays to seal the game. That’s what we were able to do tonight.”
OK, go ahead — check that box, too.