HOUSTON — James Harden and the Houston Rockets didn’t talk about their defeat at home by the Utah Jazz in the second game of their second-round playoff series last season before Game 2 of their first-round matchup on Wednesday night.
The Beard and his teammates were certainly thinking about it though.
Harden put on an MVP performance with 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists to lead the Rockets to a second straight rout of the Utah Jazz, 118-98, for a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Rockets also won Game 1 of last year’s series easily before losing that second game in Houston. They ended up winning the series in five games, but talked about the importance of maintaining focus after their 32-point win in Game 1 this season to avoid another such letdown.
It was clear early that they wouldn’t have that problem this time around.
“It was important for us to come out aggressive,” Harden said. “I think it was our defensive effort.”
Harden, who recorded his third career playoff triple-double, had 25 points by halftime in a game the Jazz were all but out of after the first two quarters.
Game 3 is Saturday night in Utah.
Harden controlled the game from the start as the Rockets raced out to a 39-19 lead after a first quarter where he scored just two points fewer than the Jazz.
“What he did in that first quarter was ridiculous,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Just dicing everybody up. When he gets it rolling nobody’s better.”
Houston made 6 of 13 3-pointers in the first and Utah hit just one of its 14 tries. The Rockets didn’t let up in the second quarter and had pushed their advantage to 70-44 at halftime.
Ricky Rubio was the man tasked with guarding him most of the night.
“He’s hard but I’m not going to quit,” he said. “He’s one of the best scorers of all time and we’re going to keep trying to find ways to make his scoring hard.”
The Jazz got 17 points each from Rubio and Royce O’Neale. Second-year star Donovan Mitchell vowed to do more after scoring 19 points in Game 1, finishing with five turnovers and no assists. He did have more assists, dishing out six, but managed just 11 points on 5-of-19 shooting and had four turnovers as the Jazz head home needing to turn things around quickly to avoid a series that looks to be headed for a sweep.
“We didn’t show up,” Mitchell said. “Simply put. And that can’t happen.”
Houston’s big early lead was also helped by 4-of-5 3-point shooting in the first half by P.J. Tucker and 16 points from Eric Gordon, who made three 3-pointers. Gordon didn’t score after halftime and Tucker added four points.
The Rockets had a 15-point lead midway through the second quarter when Harden made a 3-pointer, and on the next possession banked in another one as he was knocked to the court on a foul by Thabo Sefolosha. Harden watched the ball go in as he sat on the court and did a little shimmy with his shoulders. The play drew a roar from the crowd and the video boards flashed to a fan holding a sign that read: `unguardable.’ before panning to former Rocket star and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who raised his arms and smiled.
Harden missed the free throw but he’d still helped the Rockets push the lead to 52-31.
The Jazz got within 17 on a tip-in by Jae Crowder with about four minutes left in the third, but Houston made the next seven points, highlighted by a 3 from Harden, to make it 90-66 about 90 seconds later.
The Rockets were up by 28 entering the fourth quarter and had a 97-73 lead when Harden entered the game for the first time in the fourth quarter with eight minutes left. His 10th assist came with about 3 1/2 minutes to go when he found a wide-open Kenneth Faried, who finished with a dunk to make it 107-87.
Jazz: Rudy Gobert had 11 points and 12 rebounds. … Utah shot just 39.8 percent after shooting 39 percent in Game 1. … Jazz finished 8 of 38 on 3-pointers. … Derrick Favors scored 14 points and had 12 rebounds.
Rockets: Houston, which had 17 3s, has made at least 15 3-pointers in 11 straight games. … Clint Capela had seven points and 10 rebounds. … Chris Paul added 17 points.
Harden wore a medallion with a picture of rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle, who was murdered last month, to Wednesday’s game. He shared a heartfelt answer when asked why it’s important to remember him.
“I’m just here because he’s one of my close friends,” Harden said. “This journey that I’m on is for him. It’s plain and simple. That name Nip. Everybody knows that name now. So I’m just another person that’s just helping that name live on.”
THEY SAID IT
Tucker on the team’s focus: “When we do what we do, I don’t think anybody can beat us. And that’s a fact, I don’t care. If we come out and communicate and when our guys get going and are aggressive, we’re tough.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Houston is 8-0 at home in the first round since D’Antoni took over for the 2016-17 season. … The Jazz have lost eight of their last 10 playoff games on the road since 2017 including four of five at Houston. … It’s the first time the Rockets have won consecutive playoff games by 20 points or more.
After Game 3 on Saturday, the series stays in Utah for Game 4 on Monday night.