Yeah, we flipped it. Then they flipped it back on us. —Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni
HOUSTON — Attending an Astros baseball game on Monday was cool for Donovan Mitchell, who’s still a kid, despite his maturity. Seeing himself featured on Kobe Bryant’s “Details,” caused him to watch it twice. His social media back-and-forth with fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons he said, “is fun.”
But winning road games in the playoffs?
That — for both him and his teammates — is rafting the rapids.
There was the win in Oklahoma City in the first round, but that was then. Wednesday presented a 116-108 win in Houston. Things are coming fast. A year ago, the best Jazz story might have been Gordon Hayward’s video game obsession.
Speaking of Hayward, the Jazz put to rest any doubt as to which team was better, 2017 or 2018. Both made the second round of the playoffs. Both faced the league’s best regular-season team.
But this Jazz team actually won in the second round. Everything else is frosting.
Just don’t ask them about it. They’re eyes-ahead. Until Wednesday they couldn’t beat Houston, not in the regular season and not in the postseason. They led by 19 in the first half, held off a furious rush that gave the Rockets a lead, then turned out the lights.
Coincidentally, an ongoing storyline in Houston is that the Rockets have rarely “flipped the switch” and played 48 great minutes.
“Yeah, we flipped it,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “Then they flipped it back on us.”
In so doing, another marker falls for the Jazz.
It’s tempting to say that neither last year’s team nor this year's has yet reached the conference finals. But the fact the Jazz did this without their starting point guard, and continue to pull significant help from their bench, says much. Jae Crowder and Alec Burks had 32 points and 40 minutes between them on Wednesday.
“Every year is different,” said Rudy Gobert. “Every game we come out to win.”
The Jazz adjusted to the range and pace of the Rockets faster than seemed possible after Sunday’s loss. Following a 41-point outburst in Game 1, James Harden was just 9 of 22 from the field, including 2 for 10 from 3-point range.
Gobert, who didn’t shoot until the fourth quarter Sunday, bounced back with 15 points and 14 rebounds. That wasn’t all his doing. The Jazz were much crisper with their passing and quicker with their reads, which got Gobert inside for several dunks.
The fact Mitchell was just 6 for 21 from the field didn’t even sidetrack them.
“They were getting layups, dunks, free throws, a little bit of everything,” said the Rockets’ Chris Paul.
Everything they weren’t getting on Sunday.
During introductions, the Houston announcer flatly called out the Jazz players’ names in a theatrically bored tone, closing with a monotone Quin Snyder. He’ll remember the name. The Jazz responded like it was a fire alarm, making nine of their first 13 shots. After a quarter, the Jazz were shooting 64 percent, leading by eight. Mitchell had launched just three attempts.
“I’m not content with Donovan. I’ve learned not to be content with him, but appreciate what he does,” Snyder said before the game. “But we try to demand more of him because that’s what he wants.”
But as Mitchell was busy racking up assists — 11 on the night — some unlikely characters came forward. Burks came in to make four straight shots and log nine points in a seven-minute span. The Jazz came at Houston in waves: Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Crowder and Burks. By the time Mitchell hit a 3-pointer, the Jazz were up 19. It was the Jazz, not any kind of Rocket, that had slipped the surly bonds of earth.
It seemed the Jazz had endured quite enough talk about Harden, the All-Star Rocket who scored 41 in Game 1.
And while the Rockets made their run, taking a brief lead in the fourth quarter, the Jazz didn’t appear particularly nervous. Harden had 21 points at the half — 10 of them from off free throws — but no one else was doing much of anything. Gobert was killing the Rockets on the pick-and-roll, and was just one rebound shy of a double-double at the break.
Invisible Rudy had been replaced by Bodacious Rudy.
But the athlete formerly known as “Slo-mo Joe,” who finished with a team-high 27 points, was playing like Big Show Joe.
The Jazz passed last year’s team without even signaling.
Correction: An earlier version said there were "wins" in Oklahoma City in the first round. The Jazz only won one game on the road during that series.