Solve the following riddle. In Game 3 of the first-round series between the Rockets and the Jazz, James Harden took 20 shots and made only three of them; he hit only two of his 13 3-point attempts; his first field goal of the game came with 7:33 left in the fourth quarter and it was a wide-open fast-break dunk. The Rockets as a whole shot 38 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep; they took seven fewer free throws than Utah. And yet they beat the Jazz, 104-101, Saturday. How did they do it?
There is a simple answer: They are the Houston Rockets, and they were playing the Utah Jazz. But there is a fuller picture at play here, of a team that can withstand a historically bad shooting night from their best player (Harden went 0-for-10 in the first half, which matched the most field goal attempts without a make in any half over the last 20 postseasons) and make up for a severe regression to the mean. The Jazz, for most of the game, were gifted a perfect opportunity; capitalize on one of the most atypical nights of Harden’s career and change the tenor of a lopsided series. Unfortunately, they couldn’t score enough to maintain their advantage. And now Houston is on the brink of advancing to Round 2.
That Harden somehow still ended up with 22 points is unbelievable, but not that difficult to explain. After that dunk removed the lid from the hoop, he came back and knocked down a 3 and then another clutch one in the closing minutes. But even though his shot wasn’t dropping for most of the night—he missed his first 15 shots of the game, nine of which were 3s—Harden kept driving and dishing (he finished with 10 assists), finding contact, and making his way to the line repeatedly. Though 14 of his 22 points came on free throws, Harden seemed genuinely shocked in the ESPN postgame interview when informed of his abysmal start.
Houston’s offense couldn’t be its usual self without their band leader firing on all cylinders, but they were able to stay afloat through the contributions of the non-Harden crew. Chris Paul made tough shot after tough shot and added 18 points that buoyed the Rockets for most of the game. Houston’s role players—P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and Austin Rivers—combined for 11 3s and 49 points. Harden, for his part, was arguably better on defense than he was on offense—imagine saying that two years ago—with six steals and countless deflections. In a Rockets season defined by Harden’s seemingly single-handedly carrying the team back into contention, it was the team’s balance that carried them in their toughest challenge of the playoffs thus far.
Harden couldn’t dissect the Utah defense like he’d done so easily in the first two games thanks to smart, unorthodox perimeter defense from Royce O’Neale and a slew of blocks from Rudy Gobert. But the Rockets returned the favor on defense. Even though Donovan Mitchell scored 21 in the first half, Houston limited every other player and then clamped down on Mitchell, who, at one point, missed 11 straight shots in the second half. Mitchell ended up with 34, but to add insult to injury, his wide-open 3-point attempt with 10 seconds left and Utah down three clanked off the rim, effectively sealing the final result. Houston could work around Harden’s going cold; Utah couldn’t do the same when Mitchell did. That was the difference.
No other Jazz player scored more than 13 points, and what’s been true for this entire series maintained: Even when Utah’s elite defense is humming, it doesn’t have enough offensive ammunition to take it home. That’s a recipe for disaster that played out in cruel fashion Saturday night; every time the Jazz looked to be rolling, the scoreboard said otherwise. Houston hung around and then pounced at the perfect time.
The answer to the riddle is telling. The Rockets are much more “team” than the public perceives. Sure, they will go as Harden does, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win when he has a bad game. A win like this shows that Houston is ready to compete with the Warriors next round, it showed they are more than just their biggest star, and it showed that Monday’s Game 4 is just a formality—this series is over.