Houston • Quin Snyder maintained since Friday night that there is no one player who can make up the absence of Ricky Rubio.
So think of Wednesday night’s game as a potluck: Joe Ingles brought the scoring. Donovan Mitchell brought the assists. Rudy Gobert brought the blocks and key free throws. Alec Burks brought the energy.
In addition to irritating defense on James Harden, Dante Exum came through with the showstopper — a dunk in the final minute that tied everything together in a 116-108 victory over the top-seeded Houston Rockets.
The contributions added up to Utah’s first win over Houston this season, which has been six meetings so far starting in October. With a crucial win on the road, the Jazz find themselves in the familiar and comfortable position of a 1-all series tie with two upcoming games at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
It worked in the first round. Why couldn’t it work in the Western Conference semifinals? While the odds are still against them — and the Rockets promised to adjust after their first home loss of these playoffs — the Jazz were able to spark hope that an upset might happen.
“This year, I think we have a better team,” said Gobert, who was on the Jazz team that stalled out in the second round last season. “Every game, we come out to win. That’s the mindset.”
This win saw several Jazz players reach outside of their normal roles, led by Ingles, who set a career high with 27 points. The role of chief distributor went to Mitchell, who had a career-best 11 assists to go with 17 points.
Burks and Exum played major bench roles, with Burks coming through with 17 points and Exum serving as the clutch defender on Harden, who had to claw for each of his 32 points and 11 assists against a more physical, determined Jazz defense.
After a sluggish performance in Game 1, the Jazz offense came out crisp, passing for dunks on the first two possession. It was Mitchell, who appeared to have locked himself in the film room over the past two days, with five assists in the first quarter alone, and seven by halftime.
It was reflective of a strategic shift: Instead of setting their signature bone-chattering screens, the Jazz big men more often slipped them, opening up opportunities in the paint, as well as kick-out opportunities as the Rockets’ defense collapsed inside. Ingles, Gobert and even Burks all benefited from Mitchell’s largesse, and soon, the Jazz were up by 19 points in the middle of the second quarter.
The key was Mitchell, who Snyder said spent much of his two off days studying different pick-and-roll situations and learning which reads to make.
“Sometimes, that’s harder than scoring, especially for someone that they don’t do that all game long, and certainly in a setting like this,” Snyder said. “He was focused on making the right play.”
Mitchell struggled for much of the evening with his shooting, going 6 for 21 from the field and scoring a playoff low in points. He did have one of the most stunning buckets of the game in the second half: a putback jam that left the crowd agape.
“I just happened to be up there,” Mitchell quipped. “I figured, ‘Why come down with it?’”
But as has often been the case in this postseason, the Jazz had to absorb a massive rally by Harden and the Rockets. From down 19, the MVP candidate helped close the gap to single digits by halftime. After the break, another 12-5 Houston run brought the game to a tie on a layup by Clint Capela (21 points, 11 rebounds).
But Utah took the body blows, and even though the offense seized up in an 18-point third quarter, the Jazz broke free again thanks in part to Ingles, who hit all five of his second-half shots.
The Rockets also struggled offensively, hitting only two field goals in a six-minute span in the middle of the fourth quarter. Coach Mike D’Antoni later said he thought his team ran out of steam late in the game, a reflection that they had not been sharp enough at the start.
“So the series is on,” he said, “let’s get it going now.”