The Houston Rockets are one game away from their first Western Conference Finals since 2015, and they have their defense — rather than their league-leading offense — to thank for that.
Houston got 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists from Chris Paul, 24 points from James Harden, and Clint Capela continued his ascension as one of the league’s most valuable centers, posting 12 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks, as the Rockets held off the Utah Jazz 100-87 in Salt Lake City.
After being demolished in Game 3, Utah altered its starting lineup, inserting swingman Jae Crowder for big man Derek Favors in an attempt to try to better match up with Houston’s shooting and athleticism rather than have the size advantage in the Favors-Rudy Gobert pairing. The change initially didn’t look good offensively — Utah didn’t make a field goal for nearly four minutes to begin to game — but eventually the offense began to come around later in the quarter. Defensively, though, the issues remained. Harden probed the lane coming off Capela screens, hitting floaters, drawing fouls and distributing as he’s done so well all season. Behind his 12 points, Houston led 30-23 after one quarter.
The Rockets started the second quarter on an 8-0 run, their lead ballooning to 15 after a beautiful Luc Mbah A Moute left-handed layup through the foul and ensuing free throw. But the Jazz hung around when things looked like they could be unfolding as they had two days earlier, when Houston led 70-40 at the break. Royce O’Neale scored eight points in the second quarter alone, including punching a driving dunk on top of Capela, and Donovan Mitchell spun and swerved his way through the lane all quarter long in the fashion that’s made him a bonafide star. Still, Chris Paul’s traditional three-point play off a high-arcing midrange jumper restored the lead to double digits, 58-48, at the break.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) May 7, 2018
The Jazz hung tough in the third quarter, but the biggest blow wasn’t delivered by their adversaries, but rather a truly unfortunate injury to Dante Exum. The lanky point guard, who has struggled with injuries for most of his still-young career, grabbed at his hamstring, collapsed on his way to the locker room and was later ruled out for the game. Exum had several nice drives to the hoop — he finished with nine points — but where his absence was felt most was on the defensive end. Exum’s combination of length and athleticism make him a prime candidate to defend either Harden or Paul, and his role has been even more expanded with Ricky Rubio sidelined this entire series with a hamstring injury of his own.
Dante Exuk pulls up on a drive to the basket. He had to be helped to the locker room. pic.twitter.com/8giMqp44ld
— Thomas Lott (@tlott33) May 7, 2018
Down two point guards and struggling mighty from behind the arc — the Jazz were just seven for 29 from deep — Utah managed to hang around as the game got chippy and the crowd got into it in the fourth. Spurred by an athletic layup in traffic by Mitchell, a monster one-handed put-back slam from Rudy Gobert and two free throws by Mitchell, Utah whittled a double-digit hole to just five, 85-80, with just under six minutes to go.
But the experienced Rockets never cracked under pressure, when perhaps past iterations of this organization would have. They have Capela and Paul to thank for that. Capela ended the quick Jazz 6-0 run with a tip-in of his own miss. Trevor Ariza splashed a three on the next possession. Playing on his 33rd birthday, Paul answered a Joe Ingles bucket with a midrange jumper of his own to make the lead double-digits again — 92-82 — and the Jazz never got closer than that the rest of the way.
Houston will try to finish things off Tuesday back at the Toyota Center at 8:00 p.m. ET.