Throughout the entire game, we moved the ball pretty well but we were on a different level in Game 2 and I think we’ve just got to get back to that. —Donovan Mitchell
SALT LAKE CITY — Trailing 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinals series, James Harden already knew the Utah Jazz would come out swinging in Game 4 at Vivint Arena Sunday.
So Harden didn’t waste any time capitalizing on the moment.
“We’re just as desperate,” Harden said ahead of the tipoff. “We didn’t do anything but get home court advantage back.”
The MVP front-runner put up 14 first-quarter points — his most of the postseason — as the Rockets jumped to an 11-3 start.
Harden ended with 24 points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists to help the Rockets take a commanding 3-1 series lead with a 100-87 victory. On his 33rd birthday, Chris Paul did damage in the midrange area, finishing with a game-high 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
The series now heads back to Houston for Game 5 on Tuesday.
“We just tried to be aggressive on both ends,” Paul said. “We knew they were going to play a lot better than they did Game 3, and we just tried to sustain it all game.”
Houston led by as many as 19 in the third quarter, but Utah cut the deficit to 85-80 with a 15-6 fourth-quarter surge, fueled by Donovan Mitchell and solid bench minutes by Raul Neto.
Mitchell would eventually foul out with less than a minute remaining in regulation but received a standing ovation as he finished with a team-high 25 points, nine rebounds and two assists while going 8-for-24 from the field.
“We haven’t been as connected as we should’ve been,” Mitchell said. “The last 15, 16 minutes of this game we saw how connected we could be moving the ball, playing well. Throughout the entire game, we moved the ball pretty well but we were on a different level in Game 22, and I think we’ve just got to get back to that.”
Jae Crowder made his first start of the season for the Jazz since being acquired from Cleveland in the three-team deal in February.
Crowder started in place of Derrick Favors, once the team announced that he would be available as a game-time decision. Favors suffered a left ankle sprain in Game 3 and went through his pregame warmup before being cleared to play. Jazz floor general Ricky Rubio was also ruled out for the fourth consecutive game with a left hamstring strain after going through tests on Sunday morning. There is still no timetable on his return.
“I think it’s hard for him right now,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Rubio. “I know how bad he wants to play, that is why he went through what he did this morning to see if he was able to contribute, even if it was in a more limited role, but he’s just not there.”
Clint Capela was also solid for the Rockets with 12 points, 15 rebounds, two steals and six swats while Rudy Gobert was a minus-27 on the floor with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks against him. Paul cited Capela’s rim protection as huge as he was able to alter shots and be aggressive in the paint. Five of Capela’s swats were in the final three minutes of the game as the Rockets outscored the Jazz 50-42 in the paint.
“I don’t know just playing the game,” Gobert said of his performance. “Sometimes you’re a minus-27 and sometimes you’re a plus-27. I just try to keep playing and help my team win the game.”
In a heated contest, Capela and Mitchell were hit with double technicals at 8:08 in the fourth, along with Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni.
Rockets forward P.J. Tucker was hit with a flagrant foul type 1 for smacking Joe Ingles across the face as he prepared for a 3-point shot attempt at 2:20 in the third.
Dante Exum was solid in the beginning with nine first-quarter points before picking up his third foul on Harden in the last 30 seconds. However, in the third, he would limp to the locker room and wouldn’t return with left hamstring soreness.
After colliding with Harden during a screen, Royce O’Neale collapsed to the ground in pain. During a timeout at 9:09, O’Neale also limped to the locker room in pain but returned later in the period. O’Neale scored all eight of his points in the second quarter, mostly in transition, including a thunderous driving dunk against Capela at 2:39.
Utah’s backs are against the wall entering Game 5, down 3-1, but the team will continue to fight.
“Well, this game we missed 22 shots at the time,” Snyder said. “We had our chances and didn’t convert. Some of them were contested, some of them were open, but you are not going to get a better shot, 45 attempts at the rim and 22 missed, so that’s tough to overcome.”