Everything seemed perfectly aligned for a Jazz victory in Game 3 on Saturday night — Donovan Mitchell couldn’t miss early, James Harden couldn’t hit anything and friendly whistles were giving Utah a virtual police escort to the free-throw line.
Which made it all the more crushing for the Jazz that they still somehow lost.
The Rockets overcame a historically bad shooting night from Harden, who missed his first 15 field-goal attempts, to rally for a 104-101 win at Vivint Smart Home Arena, moving within one win of sweeping the first-round series and eliminating Utah.
While the tone of this one was mostly different throughout, in the end, one of the same old problems from the first two games of this series — an inability make shots in key moments — crept up and proved too problematic to overcome.
“We started the right way — moving the ball, being physical defensively,” said center Rudy Gobert, who indeed had seven blocked shots. “[But] the shots weren’t falling.”
With the Jazz defense finally bearing some resemblance to one of the best in the league, and Houston frequently discombobulated, there were plenty of chances to pull away.
But with the ball too frequently clanking off the rim, it never happened.
Buoyed by a frenetically energized home crowd, Utah started the game on an 8-0 run — including an alley-oop from Jae Crowder to Mitchell, and then a four-point play from the second-year star guard. And yet, within minutes, Houston was within 13-12.
With Mitchell lighting it up, however — he began the game hitting 5 of 7 shots — the Jazz again appeared on the verge of gaining some separation. But then, the Rockets once more got contributions from their supporting cast, with Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, and Gerald Green all draining 3s to keep the game close.
That Mitchell had 21 points at the break and Harden was 0 for 10 from the field but the Jazz were only up five points was lost on no one.
The third period seemed like the best chance of all to pull away. Seemingly friendly whistles resulted in plenty of early free-throw attempts. But within the quarter’s first three minutes, Ricky Rubio split a pair, Mitchell split a pair, and then Mitchell missed both.
While Houston was struggling to get much going, the Rockets remained close, as Utah wound up shooting just 5 of 14 from the field, 9 of 17 from the line, and committing six turnovers in the quarter.
“We didn’t capitalize as much as we needed to, whether it be from the foul line or that stretch in the third quarter,” said coach Quin Snyder. “I thought we blew a chance to build a little bit of a lead.”
A big opportunity was missed, and the suddenly nervous energy from the crowd at the Viv seemed to indicate everyone knew it.
ROCKETS 104, JAZZ 101
• James Harden overcomes a 3-for-20 shooting night to total 22 points and 10 assists, as Houston puts Utah on the brink of elimination.
• Donovan Mitchell scores 34 for the Jazz, but their inability to take advantage of opportunities to all away costs them.
• Utah shoots just 12 for 41 on 3-pointers (29.3%) and 25 for 38 from the free-throw line (65.8%).
Harden wouldn’t miss forever. After starting 0 for 15, he finally got a basket, making a transition dunk with 7:32 remaining. Moments later, he drilled his first 3-pointer of the game to give the Rockets a six-point lead.
His fourth-quarter stat line included 14 points, 3 of 6 shooting, 2 of 5 from deep, 6 of 6 free throws, and three assists.
“If you have a lead, particularly against a team like Houston, regardless of how you played [earlier in] the game, you know at the end of the game that’s James Harden, and he’s that good,” Snyder said. “And you give yourself a very small margin.”
While the Jazz didn’t give up — the game went down to the wire until Mitchell missed a shockingly wide-open game-tying 3 try with 6.5 seconds left — some of the same old issues from the first two games of this series hurt Utah again.
For one, the long-distance shooting was again mediocre, as Utah hit just 12 of 41 attempts from deep (29.3%).
Then, there were Mitchell’s struggles. While his hot start was about the only thing keeping the team going early, he eventually cooled down — enduring a 1-for-13 stretch at one point. He finished with 34 points, six rebounds, and five assists, but made only 4 of his final 20 attempts (he shot 9 of 27 from the field), and went 12 of 17 from the line.
“You’ve got to hit shots. I can’t miss 16 shots [late]. That’s my role, and I can’t miss that many shots,” Mitchell said. “I’ve got to be able to hit those.”
Meanwhile, much of the supporting cast was again AWOL. Derrick Favors did score 13 off the bench, Georges Niang had a productive first-half stretch, and Kyle Korver looked capable of contribution for the first time all series. But Joe Ingles scored eight, and Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale only had five apiece. The three combined to shoot 8 for 23.
The backcourt did the biggest damage for the Rockets, in spite of game-long foul trouble, as Harden overcame a 3-for-20 shooting night to total 22 points and 10 assists, while Paul added 18 points, four assists, and four rebounds.
The Jazz will now try to avoid elimination Monday night when the teams play at Vivint Arena again. And while the team was clearly discouraged to see their deficit sitting at 3-0 rather than 2-1, Mitchell vowed no one was giving up.
“I don’t think anybody is going to just [roll] over Monday; I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I don’t think [as an] organization that’s what we’re based on,” he said. “You can say no team’s come back from 3-0, but no team had come back from 3-1 [in the NBA Finals] and that happened, so that’s where my mindset’s at. It’s an uphill battle, but we’re not just going to [roll] over and give them the game. That’s not who we are — that’s not who any of us are. We’re not afraid — you saw that tonight. We’re gonna keep playing.”
With a chance to build the lead early in the third quarter, Utah goes just 3 for 9 at the free-throw line, and Houston hangs around.
15 • James Harden missed his first 15 field-goal attempts Saturday, but the Jazz could not take advantage.
Utah will try to avoid elimination on Monday, with Game 4 between the teams coming at Vivint Arena.