HOUSTON — Playoff implications? Retribution for that embarrassing loss to Houston in Salt Lake two months ago? Redemption for the dismal performance against New York two nights earlier?
All the various motivations the Utah Jazz supposedly had for Wednesday night's game with Houston went out the window in the opening minutes and the Jazz were never really in the game of a 100-93 loss at the Toyota Center.
Oh, they did briefly pull within five in the final minutes after the Rockets relaxed and suddenly missed a dozen straight shots, but this one was decided early. The Jazz dug themselves a hole that was way too deep to climb out of and diminished their playoff hopes even further.
The defeat was doubly disappointing because it left the Jazz (34-34) three games behind the Rockets in the race for the playoffs and decided the tiebreaker in favor of the Rockets, who have now beaten the Jazz three of four times this season. The Jazz remain ninth in the Western Conference standings, one and a half games behind the L.A. Lakers.
Coming on the heels of a 90-83 loss to a depleted New York team two nights earlier was also puzzling because of the way the Jazz played through the first three quarters.
The Jazz fell behind 6-0 at the start, trailed by 10 in the first quarter, by 22 in the second and by 26 midway through the third. Only some poor shooting by the Rockets in the fourth quarter, along with some energetic minutes from Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward, made it look like a competitive game.
"We can't start the game out that way," said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. "We can't hold anything back. I'm proud of the way we fought back and the way those guys laid out there. But it's a tough loss. The loss is a disappointment."
The Jazz were led by Hayward, who scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half, and Al Jefferson, who played nearly 43 minutes and had his 31st double-double of the year with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Both players talked about the "hole."
"We can't get ourselves in that deep of a hole and try to fight back," Jefferson said. "You got to give us credit for staying in it and having a chance at the end, but it's hard to get yourselves in a deep hole."
"You can't get down to a team like this, at (their) home and expect to come back," added Hayward. "I'm proud of us for fighting back, but it was too big of a hole and they're too talented offensively to expect to keep them from scoring like that."
The Rockets looked like the more motivated team from the start as they were trying to come back from their own disappointing loss, a 30-point drubbing by Golden State three nights earlier.
Led by James Harden, who scored 20 of his game-high 29 points in the first half, the Rockets burst out to leads of 25-17 after one quarter and 52-33 at halftime, after leading by as many as 22.
Things started to get out of hand in the third quarter, when the Houston lead stretched to 26 at 71-45 on Jeremy Lin's 20-foot jumper. At that point, you had to wonder if the Rockets might surpass their 125-80 win over the Jazz in late January.
That's about the time Burks came in for Mo Williams, who only managed four points on 2-of-7 shooting in 24 minutes.That's also when Hayward, who had only scored five points at the time, started going to the bucket and added eight points before the end of the quarter.
In the final quarter, the Rockets missed 12 consecutive shots, thanks in part to a couple of blocks by Derrick Favors and another by Marvin Williams, and with 1:29 left, the Jazz suddenly trailed by just five at 93-88 on a pair of Hayward free throws.
But Harden made a couple at the other end and a couple more with 18 seconds left as the Jazz couldn't close the gap further.