The Houston Rockets knew the Jazz would be better in Game 2 on Wednesday. They knew Utah coach Quin Snyder and his staff would make adjustments. And they knew the Jazz would have more energy than in Sunday’s series opener.
Yet, the top-seeded Rockets were still left stunned by their 116-108 loss to the Jazz, a defeat that knotted the series up at 1-1 heading to Salt Lake City Friday night for Game 3 at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
It wasn’t a lack of respect. The Rockets to a person said they knew the Jazz to be a good team. After all, bad teams don’t advance to the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs.
Yet, for some reason, Houston didn’t come out in Game 2 with fire or energy. Yes, the Rockets buckled down and picked it up and erased a 19-point deficit. But, in what was a desperate game for the Jazz, Houston didn’t meet or match that desperation. Now, a series that looked like an easy layover until the Rockets’ anticipated Western Conference finals date with the Golden State Warriors suddenly is real.
“We came out a little too lackadasical,” Houston all-star guard James Harden said. “We were just kind of going through the motions and what not. At the end of the second quarter, third quarter, we picked it up. That’s a pretty good team down there. If we give any team, especially in the postseason, that kind of confidence, it’s going to be pretty tough.”
If the Rockets thought a series with the Jazz would amount to an easy ride, well, they can be forgiven. Houston dominated Utah during the regular season, sweeping the Jazz 4-0 and winning all four games by double-digits. Game 1 felt like more of the same, with the Rockets leading by as many as 27 points on their way to a blowout win.
But, much to Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s chagrin, the Rockets didn’t close the Jazz out on Sunday the way he wanted. A 27-point advantage twice dwindled to 11 in the fourth quarter, before Houston finally put the game away. D’Antoni on Sunday said he was unhappy with the way his team closed the game. Down the hallway, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he was encouraged with Utah’s resilience. The Jazz saw things they could exploit.
They had confidence.
It took D’Antoni just a few minutes on Wednesday night to realize his team had found trouble. The Jazz were a team that clearly believed they could win the game. The Rockets were the team running in mud, trying to find a rhythm. D’Antoni called a timeout. Then, he called another. By the time the Rockets got comfortable, it was too late.
“I thought it was the same thing that happened in Minnesota against the Timberwolves,” D’Antoni said. “We didn’t come out right and they didn’t feel us. You know, they made the shots that we kind of left them open. They fought, but it seemed like it took us a half a quarter, at least a quarter and a half to turn up the juice. We were down 19 before we started doing it. You can’t get down by 19. Not to a team like this. They’re too good.”
As the series shifts to Utah, the Rockets are seeking cures for what ailed them. They know they will need contributions from more than Harden and Paul. And, defensively, they know they will need to be a lot better, as they’ve allowed the Jazz to shoot better than 50 percent in each of the first two games.
Overall, Utah has won five of the series’ eight quarters going into Game 3.
“They were just too comfortable,” Paul said of the Jazz. “They were getting layups, dunks, free-throws, a little bit of everything. We fought back, but give them credit. They did what they were supposed to do. They came in and got a win.”