2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Semifinals: Rockets (1) vs. Jazz (5)

Houston Rockets start fast, hold off late-surging Utah Jazz

Top-seeded Rockets have yet to hit full playoff stride, but keep racking up victories

HOUSTON — The league-leading muscle memory that was missing for much of the first two weeks of these playoffs for the Houston Rockets made an appearance just in time for the start of the Western Conference semifinals.

The sweet-shooting team that rolled through the NBA regular season to the tune of a franchise-best 65 wins, finally showed up … for a half, at least.

The lock-down defense on the perimeter and in the paint … the showtime gamesmanship of both James Harden and Chris Paul — it was all there from the start. Now if coach Mike D’Antoni could just get his crew to keep it up for four straight quarters (instead of a half or the three quarters in five games of the Rockets’ first-round series win), he’d be a lot happier.

Because when it’s all clicking the way it did early in the Rockets’ 110-96 Game 1 lip-busting of the Utah Jazz here Sunday at Toyota Center, there is no confusion as to who and what these Rockets believe themselves to be.

“Scary,” is the way Harden described it afterwards.

Yes, things got sort of interesting late, after the Jazz woke up and started chewing into the Rockets’ 27-point cushion. D’Antoni said he started sweating when the lead dwindled to 11 in the fourth quarter.

He said he was sweating with every dazzling move Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell made to get himself or a teammate a shot. That caused D’Antoni to send Harden back into the game three minutes earlier than usual.

“It was a total game until halftime,” D’Antoni said. “Obviously we came out ready to roll from the get-go. Halftime happened, and we didn’t have a lot of the juice we should have had. Obviously, we were ready to roll from the get go. They came off a tough series and we had to take advantage of it. They had some dead legs and we came out and did what we were supposed to do.

“But there’s so much emotion and you get in the game and were up 27 or up 24 and you kind of let down and it’s hard to get it back. Give them credit, they kept fighting. We did what we were supposed to do and obviously we’re happy … but we can do better.”

Better than having Harden or Paul on hand to answer every one of the Jazz’s potentially momentum-shifting play with one of their own?

Sure. How much better? That’s the real question. What’s the ceiling for a team that has used this formula the Rockets have used all season?

“Once again, I think this team offensively, us, we’re just different,” Harden said in trying to describe how the Rockets can perk up so quickly offensively against one of the league’s elite defenses.

“We’ve seen so many different defenses throughout the year that it prepared us for this moment, whether it’s [Rudy] Gobert back at the rim or team’s switching. We’ve seen it all, pretty much all year, so we watch film and we figure out how we can create three [point shots] and create opportunities for each other and we just go out there and play our butt off.”

Yes, things looked a little choppy at times the past few weeks for Houston. But that’s to be expected when you’ve been as good as the Rockets have been during parts of the 2017-18 season.

Trying to find that groove again has proved to be tougher than imagined.

D’Antoni is doing his best to ring the alarm for his team since March, running them through all of the fire drills, without altering the threat level prematurely.

“My job is to nit-pick and try to get better when we’re not good,” he said. “We only scored 46 points in the second half, so that’s not good. Pace wasn’t where it should be. Defensively, we had some breakdowns. We had 15 turnovers that gave them 22 points and at halftime there were like five turnovers. We got careless and all that came from the sloppiness in general. Those are the things that we can control. That’s what makes them good, is that we can play a lot better than this.”

Still, D’Antoni could use some outside help making his points.

The Jazz stole D’Antoni’s shot at injecting some emotion and urgency into his team by upsetting the Oklahoma City Thunder (and their trio of superstars) in the first round.

Harden (this season’s Kia MVP favorite) going up against his former teammate Russell Westbrook (and the reigning Kia MVP) would have provided on-court fireworks from two of the league’s most dynamic players.

It’s hard to give credit to all the things he does. He just impacts the game in so many ways. You have to just have to make it harder for him in so many facets.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder, on James Harden

They’ll have to settle instead for whatever fire Mitchell and the Jazz can generate without their starting point guard available for the foreseeable future. Ricky Rubio left Game 6 of Utah’s series-clinching win vs. OKC with a hamstring injury and isn’t expected back before Game 5 of the West semis (provided this series lasts that long).

And truth be told, the Game 1 script was already written before Sunday’s opening tip. The Jazz showed up here spent, physically and emotionally, some 36 hours after that roller coaster series-clinching win over the Thunder Friday night. The fact that they couldn’t seem to match the Rockets’ energy and precision in the first half was no surprise.

“It’s a quick turnaround, obviously there is some fatigue but that wasn’t the reason for the performance tonight,” Mitchell said, pushing back on the narrative that his team didn’t show up here with the requisite energy and effort needed to win. “We landed at 5 a.m. in San Antonio and played the same day and won. We’ve been through tough times as a teamed we’ve gone through it. We really didn’t know what to expect, we really didn’t know game plan wise and we figured it out in the second half. I don’t think it was so much of a fatigue factor.”

What couldn’t be debated was the fact that one of the best defensive teams in the league could be so easily manipulated.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert is the likely frontrunner for the Kia Defensive Player of the Year award that will be handed out in late June. But he was missing in action as the Rockets built that early lead before halftime.

Harden and Paul took turns exploiting their mismatches on offense, finding opens shots for themselves and their teammates at will. They got whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. They forced the Jazz to pick which poison to digest against the league’s most diabolical and devastating point guard duo.

And yet it still feels like we haven’t seen these Rockets pushed to the limit in this postseason. They were routed in their Game 3 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, thus keeping them from a playoff, crunch-time situation.

So far, no Western Conference foe has been capable of consistently countering Houston’s attack and drive it out of its comfort zone.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder and his staff have just two practice days to come up with wrinkles they can add to the mix, particularly for Harden, before Wednesday’s Game 2.

“He’s a special player,” Snyder said of Harden. “It’s hard to give credit to all the things he does. He just impacts the game in so many ways. You have to just have to make it harder for him in so many facets. And it requires your whole team to guard him because he’s capable of finding any weakness in any given situation.

“A good player can see their man and the help; a better player can see three [things] and he sees everything. That’s what makes him so unique, is that he has the ability to complete all of those plays. And we still have to go out and compete and make it hard on him. But I don’t think there is any mystery to what a good player he is, and you can see it night after night.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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