Thursday’s Jazz-Rockets game was weird literally from the first second of the game, when Rudy Gobert was called for a foul on the game-opening jump ball.
When James Harden went flying on a Gobert post-up, and the center was whistled for his second foul just 2 minutes and 47 seconds in, things got crazy.
When the big man lost his cool, smacked a few items off the scorer’s table and onto the court, and earned a one-technical ejection for his trouble, it could have gotten out of hand.
Instead, the Jazz remained calm, ratcheted up the defensive intensity without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, dialed in their ball movement, and went on to a 118-91 victory over Houston.
The win is Utah’s fourth in five games, and drew its record to a level 13-13 for the season.
“I had a stupid reaction. I think I can blame myself more than anything for that,” Gobert said after the game. “… It was just frustration, I think. A lot of frustration. I’ve got to be smarter. It didn’t cost the team tonight — it could’ve cost the team, losing me in the first quarter. It’s not the smartest thing to do.”
Crew chief Tom Washington told a pool reporter postgame that the first foul was called because “Gobert grabs the arm of [Clint] Cappela, which is illegal contact, so it’s a loose-ball foul.” He said the ejection was issued because the items Gobert hit “came out to the floor a considerable amount. It was just too demonstrative, and we had to take action on that.”
As the Vivint Smart Home Arena faithful howled in frustration at every perceived wrong call, both teams seemed momentarily unnerved by the volume — as in quantity, not loudness — of referee whistles, with 12 called in the first 12 minutes of action.
The Jazz, crucially, seemed to regain their composure first.
Defenders closed out without selling out on 3-point shooters, hands went into passing lanes, and the five guys wearing purple generated nearly as much disruption as the three wearing grey and black.
Houston shot just 6 for 23 (26.1 percent) in the opening quarter, and league MVP James Harden managed only three points on three free throws.
By halftime, the high-powered Rockets offense had totaled just five 3-pointers, and only two fast-break points.
“I just thought the way our team competed tonight, regardless of any situation, that’s the primary thing,” said coach Quin Snyder. “The game is always going to throw you adversity, it’s wrapped different ways.”
Meanwhile, after scoring 27 and 26 points, respectively, in the first two quarters, Utah’s offense took its star turn in the third. Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder nailed back-to-back 3s, then Crowder converted a steal into a layup-and-one for a quick 9-0 blitz.
With crisp passes flying between players, the run became 15-4, and 26-9; the Jazz wound up winning the period by a 38-11 margin, and went into the fourth with a 91-56 advantage.
The Rockets effectively waved the white flag to open the fourth, sending out a lineup of Nene, Gary Clark, James Ennis, Danuel House Jr., and Michael Carter-Williams.
The Jazz finished the game with 26 assists to the Rockets’ 13. They committed only 12 turnovers, compared to Houston’s 22 — which yielded a 33-10 margin in points off turnovers.
Derrick Favors, who came off the bench in this game to allow Crowder to start at the four, played crucial minutes at center in place of Gobert. The veteran big man filled the lane for alley-oops, worked tirelessly on the boards for putbacks, and wound up totaling 24 points (on 10-of-13 shooting) and 10 rebounds.
"When Rudy went out, I saw it as an opportunity for myself to take advantage of it, and I did and we got a win,” Favors said. “… When one guy goes down, when one guy gets into foul trouble, the next guy steps up every single time. That’s the type of team we are.”
Ingles added 18 points, Ricky Rubio had 13, and Crowder contributed 12. Dante Exum — paroled from garbage-time minutes — chimed in with 15 points, five assists, two steals, and even a pair of 3-pointers. Veteran big man Ekpe Udoh put in 19 efficient minutes, totaling nine points and seven rebounds, while also impacting the paint with solid defense and two blocked shots.
“I’m really proud of the guys tonight, especially the guys who came in and don’t get a lot of minutes like Ekpe,” said Gobert. “He did an unbelievable job tonight, and Derrick stepped it up, too.”
As for Houston, Harden totaled a team-high 15 for the Rockets, albeit on 5-of-16 shooting. As a team, they wound up shooting just 38.2 percent overall, and made only three shots from deep post-halftime, finishing 8 of 36 beyond the arc (22.2 percent).
Utah now heads out for a two-game road swing, Sunday in San Antonio and Monday in Oklahoma City. Gobert’s wallet will presumably be a little lighter and easier to pack.
JAZZ 118, ROCKETS 91
• Rudy Gobert is called for his first foul 1 second into the game, and his second just 2:47 in, and his fiery protest earns him a one-technical ejection from the referees.
• Derrick Favors comes off the bench to capably fill Gobert’s void, totaling 24 points and 10 rebounds.
• Dante Exum also plays a strong game in reserve, totaling 15 points and five assists, while also hitting a pair of 3-pointers.