What part of "death grip" didn't the Jazz understand?

This one was ugly at worst, perplexing at best, for those out there in Jazzland. Leading 2-0 in their first-round playoff series with Houston, the Jazz returned home only to lose, 94-92 to the Rockets, Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena. That's right, same place they guarded during the regular season like Churchill defended Britain. Yet they lost at home for just the fifth time all year — but the second time against Houston.

The Jazz stared down their demons — road troubles — in Houston, winning not one but two games against a quality opponent, then fell flat on their dignity in the place they know best.

They made an embarrassing 20 of 33 free throws, on Thursday.

It would take Rocket scientist to figure it out.

Sometimes you wonder if they're just messin' with everyone.

Realistically, this series isn't likely to end any differently than expected, even though the Rockets did win 22 consecutive games in the regular season. The Jazz are too much for the injury-depleted Rockets. Houston isn't going to win four of the final five games — three of the next four, now — to take the series, any more than Houston Control is going to try sending another astronaut to the moon.

But that doesn't mean the Jazz should feel good about Thursday's loss. On the contrary, they probably should feel slightly chagrined. They let them do WHAT? WHERE?

Even with dreadful free throw shooting, the Jazz had a final chance. But Houston's Carl Landry blocked Deron Williams' shot at the last moment to end the suspense. The Jazz will have to play in Houston at least once more.

Who expected the Jazz to lose in their own house? With Yao Ming injured, not even the most ardent Rockets fan gave them much of a chance. The Jazz jumped on the Rockets from the onset of the series, ganging up on Tracy McGrady and daring everyone else to pick up the slack.

McGrady, who said after Game 2 that he was "tired," was the subject of speculation prior to Game 3. As to whether coach Rick Adelman should rest his star player more often, the Rockets coach said, "I think you have to try to win this game. You have to go with the people you feel (are best). Everybody asks about Tracy (sitting out) — we can do that, but if you're down 16 points going into the fourth quarter, I'm not quite sure where that's going to get you."

As it turned out, the Rockets bolted to an eight-point lead in the first half, thanks largely to the return of injured Rafer Alston, who poured in 11 first-quarter points and finished with 20.

Maybe they need to get back to the original plan, which was to act like they were in the series of their lives. And while they're at it, get back to claiming good production from any and all.

Prior to Thursday, the Jazz's playoff output was highly effective. Coach Jerry Sloan could pretty much count on double-doubles from Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. But the clincher is that he could also bank on someone else getting garish.

In Game 1, Andrei Kirilenko scored 21 points. In Game 2 Mehmet Okur got 16 points and 16 rebounds. Every night, it seemed, they got 25-30 points off the bench. It was like buying a car and suddenly realizing as you drove away that — woo-hoo! — it has a killer sound system, too.

The Jazz bench has outscored Houston's 78-49.

After the first two games, it seemed the biggest thing the Jazz had to do was to tone down talk of a sweep. Keep their speedometers at 55 and drive straight ahead.

Yet by the time Game 3 rolled around, the Jazz had apparently gotten slightly inattentive. Boozer was below average with 15 points, Kirilenko had only five. Or maybe it was because the Rockets had back Alston, something they didn't have in the first two games. They showed they aren't the collapsible team they appeared to be.

They're a team that has somehow saved face, even in the face of elimination.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com