There is one more game to be played (at the very least) in this series, and it’ll be on the home court Tuesday when Houston will be in a celebratory mood. But be clear about this: the Jazz are no longer the barrier between the Rockets and the goal. They’re just standing in the way. There’s a difference.
Getting rid of the overmatched yet naggingly persistent Jazz is all about keeping pace with the Warriors or perhaps staying one step ahead of the defending champs, nothing more or less.
A long-anticipated Western Conference final, and perhaps a classic one, is impatiently waiting, and it’s in the Rockets’ best interest to settle their end of the bargain and if possible on the same night when the Warriors can do the same.
And so, just a few hours after the Warriors went up 3-1 on the Pelicans in the other West semifinal, the Rockets did likewise Sunday, using star power to overcome an otherwise blah performance. They only scored 100 points — a level that will certainly rise in the next round.
Quite simply, they had James Harden and Chris Paul and Clint Capela when it counted and Utah did not. And speaking of Paul, he’s one win away from advancing beyond the second round for the first time in his otherwise respectable career. His anxiousness to kill that annoying demon was evident in the third quarter of Game 4, when he scored 11 of his 27 points while drilling the Jazz with mid-range jumpers, and the game flipped in Houston’s favor.
“I’ve been here before, 3-1,” said Paul on postgame TV, his memory still sharp from blowing that lead while with the Clippers four years ago, coincidentally against Harden and the Rockets. “[Expletive] went bad real quick.”
It also happened to be Paul’s birthday, and what more can a 33-year-old do to demonstrate that age is merely a number?
“He was really big today,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I understand he has another birthday coming up Tuesday.”
It was a surreal night for Paul as well. While he was busy erasing the Jazz, his brother CJ Paul was being momentarily erased from the arena.
CJ Paul, who handles much of his brother’s personal affairs, was escorted from his lower-level seat by arena security in the third quarter for shouting at referee James Williams. He was allowed back to his seat moments later and claimed to be a victim of mistaken identity.
“They thought I said something that shouldn’t be printed,” said CJ, right after he took a postgame phone call from Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations. “Actually, it was a fan sitting next to me. I addressed the fan who said it. I told security what happened. After they let me back in, the security guy said, `By the way, James said it was definitely you that said that. He didn’t see you, but he heard you.’ What, you mean out of 20,000 people? What’s crazy is James reffed me when I was in college.”
CJ Paul, who has never missed any of his brother’s playoff games, didn’t miss much during his brief departure in this one, either. The Rockets stayed in control, save for some teases by the Jazz, and this is where they stand, right on the cusp, right with the Warriors suddenly swelling in their windshield.
Remember, the Rockets built their team and their season around overcoming the Warriors; the Jazz never came up in conversation. That’s why they added Paul last summer, and why Harden tweaked his isolation-dominant game to accommodate Paul, and why the rise of Capela is raising the possibility of Houston bringing a new Big Three in Golden State’s direction.
That Houston won another game despite a toned-down offense and a vanishing 3-point shot — they made just 26 percent Sunday and in the last three games are at 29 percent — is either an impressive or troublesome trend depending on your take. D’Antoni is playing up the former.
“We haven’t shot well the whole series,” he said. “But there’s all different ways to win. We’re not strictly a jump-shooting team. Chris has got the mid-range. James gets to the hole. You’ve got Clint down there. We’ve got a lot of other stuff we can go to. The whole plan was to get that so we wouldn’t be a one-dimensional team.”
“We’ll get to 100,” D’Antoni added. “Anyway, if we do our part defensively, we have a real good shot to win.”
Against the Jazz, does it really matter? Utah arrived this far on hard work and solid coaching and an otherworldly rookie, but those teams don’t travel deeper than this in the playoffs. Their lack of star appeal is flaring up and gradually costing them right now.
They started a rookie, a guy cut by the Clippers, an undrafted free agent, a Celtics castoff and a center who can’t shoot. Also, Derrick Favors isn’t 100 percent and Ricky Rubio missed his third straight game with a bad hamstring. Then, in the third quarter, Dante Exum grabbed his hamstring and was done for the night, perhaps for the series.
They’re playing with house money after losing their franchise guy, Gordon Hayward, to free agency last summer. They won 48 games, had winning streaks of 11, nine and six after January 22, grabbed the No 5 seed and probably sent Paul George plotting an exit strategy from Oklahoma City after beating the Thunder in the first round. Then they stole a game from the No 1 seed in the West, in Houston no less. What’s not to like?
And yet, reality is settling in Utah like the famous bronze sunsets in the Wasatch Valley. Joe Ingles shocked the Rockets with 27 points in the Game 2 win; he totaled 21 points the next two. Exum was a national talking point for 48 hours after becoming a Harden stopper in Game 2, but his 15 minutes quickly evaporated, and now he has the sore hammy. Mitchell had one insane quarter when the series shifted to Utah — his 13 points in the third quarter Sunday. Otherwise, not much else.
Their plight was cruelly spelled out in a few sequences in Game 4. Mitchell stripped Harden and drove for a layup but couldn’t convert. Ingles broke Capela’s ankles on a step-back jumper but missed the three. Rudy Gobert took a pass and drove the lane … and Capela swooped from nowhere and rejected him.
That was one of Capela’s six blocks (to go with 15 rebounds), and he influenced roughly a dozen others.
“Donovan drove the lane and saw Clint and decided to pass, and that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet,” said Paul. “There was a lot of that.”
Harden had issues once again against Utah after opening the series with 41 points. He shot poorly from deep, missing 6-of-7, and coughed up eight turnovers and couldn’t take control of Game 4. That left the savior role to Paul. Such is the luxury the Rockets have this season; when one superstar is handcuffed, the other is released.
Paul was the best player on the floor, if not the most efficient. In 35 minutes he had just one turnover, and in addition to scoring, he chipped in with 12 rebounds and six assists.
“He was extremely aggressive tonight, which is what we needed,” Harden said.
And why not? Paul can smell the next round and a chance, once and for all, to change the narrative with regard to his playoffs history, which is an awkward fit with the rest of his playing history.
When that was brought up to Paul, Harden respectfully interjected, “He’s not thinking about that. We got a game Tuesday and we’ll do whatever we can to close it out.”
Paul laughed. “We’re not going to give up,” he confirmed.
There’s no reason for that. The Rockets are suddenly on the verge — where they thought they’d be all along. The Western Conference finals are tapping Paul and the Rockets on the shoulder and reminding them of their season-long mission statement, and the Rockets are very much OK with that.
“We didn’t come this far,” said Harden, “just to be up 3-1 in this series.”
No, not this one.