2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Semifinals: Rockets (1) vs. Jazz (5)
Game 2 triumph puts Utah Jazz in position for another playoff upset
Utah outlasts Houston, steals home-court advantage in second straight series
HOUSTON — They’ve already sprung one upset this postseason.
Do the Utah Jazz have another one in them?
There’s no reason to doubt the fearless, short-handed Jazz after they toppled the Houston Rockets in Toyota Center Wednesday with a 116-108 win in Game 2 over the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, evening up this semifinals series at 1-1.
The Jazz led by 19 before halftime, surrendered that advantage and trailed by five in the third quarter before re-taking control with a decisive 16-2 run late to shock the Rockets and snatch home-court advantage with Games 3 (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT) and 4 (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, TNT) this weekend in Salt Lake City.
“That to me was maybe the most important thing in the game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of his team’s resilience. “To get off to a good start and play well and then you know they’re going to come back. It’s just a question of how far and how quickly, and I thought they cut the gap and not only made it a game, but basically took control of the game.
“I think we could feel that. At that point, for our guys to keep their focus on what we’re trying to do, and continue to run and continue to shoot and try to defend says a lot about the team and how they function together and that they didn’t break at that point.”
Playing into May wasn’t supposed to be in the cards for this Jazz team that lost All-Star Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics in free agency. Only six players returned from the fifth-seeded squad that knocked off the LA Clippers in the first round of 2017 and got swept by the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals.
There weren’t necessarily any playoff expectations for this team at the start of training camp.
But no one told rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, who has led the Jazz all season and keyed their upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in their first-round series.
Mitchell shot just 6-for-21 in Game 2, filling in for injured starting point guard Ricky Rubio, but showed up every time the Jazz needed him. He registered five assists in the first six minutes as the Jazz took control, finishing with 17 points, a career-high 11 assists, five rebounds and a jaw-dropping dunk on his own missed floater in the fourth quarter that helped ignited his team’s game-closing run.
“Just being poised and staying under control was the biggest thing,” Mitchell said. “Understand how they were going to guard me and when you have the big fella (Rudy Gobert) rolling as fas he did, making the right plays to kind of predict what the defense was going to do next.”
Clearly no one mentioned to Joe Ingles, one of those six veteran holdovers from last season, that a playoff run was not in the cards for 2018. He smoked the Rockets for a career-high 27 points in Game 2, draining 10 of his 13 shots, including a 7-for-9 showing on 3-pointers. Ingles also nailed two key 3-pointers in the final five minute to help hold the Rockets off.
“Just sticking together and just keep executing,” Ingles said about what carried the Jazz down the stretch. “We knew they were going to make runs. So just sticking together, I think we did a really good job of that and we were able to make our runs when it was our turn.”
It was the sort of group effort that has been the trademark of this Jazz team all season. Mitchell and Ingles served as the catalysts for an inspired bunch that jumped on the Rockets early, took the home team’s best retaliatory shots, and then pounced at the finish. Their confidence in each other and their teammates was obvious after two days to study how to attack the Rockets after that Game 1 drubbing.
The Jazz bench nearly doubled up their Rockets counterparts in scoring (41-22). They got a career night from Alec Burks (17 points, six assists), a double-double from Jae Crowder (15 points and 10 rebounds) and quality work on both ends of the floor from Dante Exum. It was Exum’s driving dunk with 55.3 seconds to play closed the door on any hopes the Rockets had of a last-minute comeback of their own.
“I thought Dante’s dunk was better than mine,” Mitchell said.
The Jazz hit a franchise playoff-high 15 3-pointers and finally beat this Rockets team that had owned them in the five games (all wins by 11 or more points) the squads had played entering Game 2.
It was the game Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni had been dreading as his team eased its way into this postseason. By many accounts, they played three outstanding quarters in the five games it took Houston to oust the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round.
They led the Jazz by 27 points in Sunday’s opener but watched that lead dwindle to just 11 points after halftime, as the Jazz found some cracks in the Rockets’ improved defense down the stretch.
D’Antoni warned his team about thinking they could flip the switch in the postseason after winning a league-best 65 games in 2017-18. The real wake-up call didn’t come until now.
“Yeah, we flipped it,” D’Antoni said. “We came back from 19 down. We flipped it and then they flipped it back on us. You’ve got to give them credit, they played great down the stretch. They hit shots, they did what they were supposed to do.”
The Jazz did exactly what they did to the Thunder in the first round. They studied the film from their Game 1 loss, made the necessary adjustments and won Game 2. In the end, it lead to an ousting of OKC in six games and the Thunder never enjoying the home-court advantage they earned that series.
Duplicating that feat against these Rockets should prove to be a much tougher task, especially without Rubio (who was one of the most animated individuals on the Jazz bench all night while rocking Mitchell’s signature rookie sweatshirt).
His hamstring injury might force Mitchell to continue working at the point for the remainder of the series. It remains to be seen, though, if that’s an advantage for the Rockets.
For all the work Kia MVP frontrunner James Harden (32 points, 11 assists and six rebounds) and teammate Chris Paul (23 points, five rebounds and three assists) did in Game 2, neither one of them could will their team to a Game 2 win as Mitchell did for the Jazz.
“They were just too comfortable,” Paul said. “They were getting layups, dunks, free throws, a little bit of everything. We fought back hard. But give them a lot of credit, they did what they were supposed to do. They came in here and got a win.”
The pressure is on the Rockets now to do the same in Utah.
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