We haven’t gave up all year and don’t plan on doing so now. —Jae Crowder
HOUSTON — Thirty-eight hours after celebrating an emotional Game 6 close-out win against the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night, the Utah Jazz were in a completely different environment Sunday afternoon.
No longer were the 18,306 fans roaring in support of the Jazz, there was a sellout crowd at Toyota Center cheering against them.
On top of that, the Jazz were playing without starting point guard Ricky Rubio — who could miss up to 10 days with a left hamstring strain — against the Western Conference’s top team.
Long story short, the Jazz were at a complete disadvantage from the tip-off and the Houston Rockets exploited those weaknesses with a 110-96 Game 1 victory to start the Western Conference semifinals series, 1-0.
MVP front-runner James Harden burned the Jazz for 41 points, eight rebounds and seven assists with seven treys.
“I don’t think there’s an adjustment for us psychologically,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said ahead of the game. “As proud as I was of our team winning that series, we’re not stuck back there mentally, no.
“I think from a preparation standpoint and a fatigue standpoint, certainly that goes without saying right,” he added. “That’s kind of self-evident that if you played a shorter time ago, and you don’t have as much prep time.”
Utah arrived in Houston during the early evening on Saturday and didn’t have time for a shootaround or an on-court walkthrough before hitting the hardwood for competition. Rookie Royce O’Neale didn’t even find out he would be starting for Rubio until the morning of the game as he was faced with the tough challenge of checking Harden.
The Jazz fell to the Rockets four times in the regular season and once again couldn’t keep up with the potent backcourt of Harden and Chris Paul, while P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon made life harder for star rookie Donovan Mitchell on the defensive end.
After averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists through six games in the first-round series versus OKC, Mitchell would finish with 21 points, five assists and three boards while going 9-for-22 from the field. He did make a couple of highlight plays, though, including a one-handed flush off an alley-oop from Jae Crowder at 5:38 in the third quarter and attacked more aggressively as the game progressed.
“I think for us as a whole, and not just myself, we kind of got stagnant with the ball,” Mitchell said. “They started switching and we didn’t figure it out until the second half.”
Paul and Harden powered the Rockets to a 64-39 edge at halftime after combining for 34 points, nine assists and six rebounds. The All-Star guards took advantage of isolation situations and the Rockets went 10-for-16 from beyond the arc (62.5 percent) in the first half, while holding the Jazz to 41.2 percent shooting. Houston would finish with a 53.1 percent clip from three in the game.
Crowder was solid off the bench in 33 minutes for Utah, scoring 11 of his 21 points in the first two quarters with five threes.
The Jazz bench went on an 8-0 run to cut the lead to 15 near the end of the third quarter, but Paul’s 3-pointer ahead of the buzzer gave the Rockets a comfortable 86-68 lead heading into the last 12 minutes.
Then in the fourth, the Jazz started with another 7-0 run to get within 11 after a driving layup from Mitchell at 10:09, but Harden & Co. pumped the breaks on anything closer than that margin.
“We haven’t gave up all year and don’t plan on doing so now,” Crowder said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, to go to where we want to be and to the championship is not going to be easy, so with that being said, when guys make runs, when teams make runs, we have to stay the course and make adjustments on the fly and make a run of our own.”
Mitchell briefly gave Jazz fans a scare late in the fourth after rolling his right ankle while chasing a fast break pass alongside Gordon, who simultaneously stepped on his foot, but would return to the court, although he limped to the bench.
Paul would end with 17 points, six assists and four steals with seven turnovers, Clint Capela added 16 points with 12 boards and Tucker scored 15 points with six rebounds.
Rudy Gobert went 4-for-4 for the game, but didn’t attempt a field goal until the fourth, ending with 11 points and nine boards.
Game 2 of the series is set for Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Houston.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is hoping Utah’s performance wasn't because of their tired legs from the quick travel.
“I’m hoping none, but I imagine there would be,” D’Antoni said. “They’re a very good team and I’ve been in that situation. When you come off a tough series like that, it’s more emotions than physical because you play at the level they’ve played to knock off OKC, it’s tough, so we expect a whole different team on Wednesday and we better be ready.”
Correction: An earlier version stated Game 3 of this series will be played on Wednesday. Game 2 will be played on Wednesday, while Game 3 will be on Friday in Salt Lake City.