HOUSTON — Out beyond the 3-point line, the artist was at his work. Wide, sweeping strokes, vibrant colors, his creative juices flowing. That’s no exaggeration when describing James Harden.
Quin Snyder usually understates everything. But this?
The Houston guard painted the Sistine ceiling in 33 minutes.
“I’ve said it before. The way he plays, there’s an artistic nature to it,” Snyder said.
That was just before Harden took the color out of the Jazz’s postseason hopes.
The second playoff game went down with the featured matchup being a mismatch. For the second straight game, Donovan Mitchell looked like a young player carrying too much burden. Mitchell was a breeze when the teams met in last year’s playoffs.
So far this year, it’s been the difference between a painter and an artist.
“He’s got real-time counters, so it’s a challenge,” Snyder said, describing Harden’s game. “He functions at a high level.”
Mitchell is 12-of-37 shooting, 4-15 from distance with nine turnovers in two games. He had 11 points on Wednesday. Harden is 22-50, 10-23 with 20 assists.
Thus the Jazz return home trailing 2-0 in the series, with a far different vibe than a year ago. Last year they made off with a Game 2 win, returning with high hopes. Though the Rockets won the next three, for a moment there was a glimmer.
This year it’s pitch-black outside.
Houston has defeated the Jazz by a combined 52 points.
When Mitchell hasn’t played well, he has owned it through the season. That will serve him in coming years. But in the here and now, it’s the difference between a certain hall of famer and a gifted young player with an all-too-short past. In the game’s opening minutes on Wednesday, Mitchell lost the ball on a turnover, then threw away a pass. He missed a 7-foot drive and picked up two early fouls. Setting up the last shot of the first quarter, he stepped out of bounds.
"I really don't have much to say. I just didn't play well," Mitchell said.
Meanwhile, Harden was visualizing his finished product.
“I dream of painting,” Vincent Van Gogh said, “and then I paint my dream.”
The great ones make it look easy.
With the lead climbing early, Harden shouldered Thabo Sefolosha back from the 3-point line and easily dropped in the shot, drawing a foul.
Harden said beforehand that he expected Mitchell to be “twice as aggressive.”
Instead, he was half as effective.
Mitchell was appalled at his five-turnover, five-rebound showing on Sunday. He said he’d have to get that fixed. But there he was on Wednesday with four turnovers, two personal fouls and an awful 4-14 shooting percentage in the first half.
Mitchell is the team’s most talented player and should be for years. He got next to no help on Wednesday. The Jazz made just 8 of 38 3-point shots. They committed nine first-half turnovers after committing 18 overall on Sunday. This ran counter to the way they appeared this week. At shootaround and practice, the team seemed relaxed and optimistic.
Gallows humor seldom works out well.
A 26-point lead was whittled to 15 in the third quarter on Wednesday, before Harden went to work. He drove the lane and lobbed up a flawless assist, went back down court and landed a three. The game ended in a 118-98 Rockets win.
Falling behind 0-2 isn’t a prospect even the most proficient team wants. Just 20 times in league history has a team overcome such a deficit. The Jazz’s history doesn’t help. In 1986 they dropped two to Dallas, won one and lost one to end the series. Three years later they didn’t bother with the formalities. They lost all three. In 2002 they lost two, won one, lost two more. In 2009 it was two losses and one win before elimination by the Clippers. San Antonio didn’t mess with the Jazz in 2012, winning all four.
Only in 2007 did the Jazz buck the trend, winning the series after losing two to the Rockets.
The Jazz might be getting outplayed, but they’re also outmanned.3 comments on this story
“We’re as good as anybody, if not better than everybody,” said Houston's Mike D’Antoni after the game. “It’s a good level.”
Someone asked D’Antoni beforehand if this year’s Rockets are better than the team that eliminated the Jazz in five games last spring. His answer: “I think we can definitely be better. We haven’t proven it yet, but yeah, I think we can be better.”
By the time the game had ended, they had proven that beyond argument.
All they had left to do was pack up the easel and hit the road.