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The Rockets Will Likely Get Their West Finals Rematch, but Will They Get the James Harden They Need?

Houston fought off Utah yet again to move onto Round 2, where it hopes to get another crack at Golden State. But it’s not the triumphant march we expected a week ago. Did the Jazz figure out how to stymie the reigning MVP?

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday wasn’t the greatest night for James Harden, but he’s probably feeling pretty good just the same. Despite needing 26 shots to score 26 points and logging nearly as many turnovers (five) as assists (six), Harden came through with several critical plays down the stretch of Game 5—a huge floater, a key strip of Rudy Gobert, a pair of clutch free throws—to help the Houston Rockets to a hard-fought 100-93 win and eliminate the Utah Jazz.

Sure, advancing past Round 1 isn’t exactly cause for celebration for a team that was a hamstring injury and a shooting apocalypse from the NBA Finals last May. But you wouldn’t blame Harden for feeling like the gentleman’s sweep lifted a load off his shoulders … or, perhaps more accurately, a Jazzman off his back.

If that looks weird to you—Ricky Rubio’s stationing himself not between Harden and the basket, but directly behind Harden, like he’s trying to peek over his shoulder to cheat off his test paper—it’s because it is. All series long, coach Quin Snyder had Utah play an exaggerated, ramped-up version of the defense that has given Harden the greatest trouble over the past few seasons. Here’s the gist: A perimeter defender presses up on the reigning MVP, trying to push him off the 3-point arc and toward a lane occupied by a very large shot-blocker.

The coverage invites Chef Harden to choose from a menu of options less appetizing than what he typically cooks up. He can try to shake his defender for a pull-up midrange jumper, which would be anathema to the analytical precepts that have shaped his game and Houston’s world-beating offense. He can drive through a thicket of arms and into the paint, where he’ll have to finish over a retreating rim protector. Or he can try to pick out the proper pass to a teammate—either a big man lurking for a dump-off or a lob, or a shooter stationed beyond the arc—who, if those aforementioned help defenders have done their job, won’t be open for long. (And even if they are, the defense has gotten the ball out of Harden’s hands, often a win in its own right.)

Gregg Popovich first broke it out in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals, eventually flustering Harden into a nearly inexplicable collapse in a six-game loss. Mike Budenholzer, a Pop disciple, took the coverage to another level earlier this season. The Milwaukee Bucks coach had Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon aggressively overplay Harden’s left hand to direct him to his weaker right, to the point where they were often standing perpendicular to Harden’s left hip and shoulder, in hopes of keeping the Beard from uncorking his game-changing step-back 3-point jumper. It worked, more or less: With the Bucks guards steering Harden right and contesting his shots from behind, the mammoth Brook Lopez lying in wait in the restricted area, and help-defense havoc-wreaker Giannis Antetokounmpo zoning up on the weak side to take away cross-court passes to shooters, Harden shot just 39.3 percent from the floor and 28 percent from 3-point range against Milwaukee and committed 13 turnovers to cancel out his 13 assists over two games—both losses.

Armed with a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber rim protector in Gobert, the Jazz—who, as Ben Falk noted at Cleaning the Glass, did a fairly decent job against Harden playing their standard elite defense during the regular season—tried to make like the Bucks. It didn’t go so hot at first, with Harden exploiting Utah’s overeager help and scrambled rotations to the tune of 61 points and 20 assists in two blowout wins.

Come Game 3, though, it seemed clear that something had changed: Harden missed his first 15 shots, a career-worst start, as Gobert found a way to bother Harden’s foul-line floaters. The Jazz still lost, because their offense was straight-up haunted for most of this series, but it seemed like they’d found their blueprint to at least slowing Harden. In Game 4, they got the scheme nailed down, limited Harden to 8-for-19 shooting with just four assists, harassed him into eight turnovers, and won by holding Houston to just 91 points, tied for the Rockets’ fifth-lowest total this season. The song remained the same early in Game 5, with Harden looking reluctant to loft up floaters over Gobert’s go-go Gadget arms, missing 10 of his first 12 shots, and giving the Jazz hope that they could send the series back to Salt Lake City.

As our own Isaac Lee likes to say, though, “Hope is poison.” After the Jazz had weathered Houston’s runs and cut the deficit to one point on a Ricky Rubio runner with 1:32 to go, everything fell apart: Rubio air-balled a would-be go-ahead corner 3, Donovan Mitchell coughed up a costly turnover and bricked a step-back 3 to put the finishing touches on an abysmal series, and Utah inexplicably committed three frustration fouls in the backcourt in the final 70 seconds of a two-possession game, allowing the Rockets to ice the series at the free throw line.

In the big picture, all of this is good news. The Rockets took out a good Utah team in five games, barely going over the minimum in a harder-than-it-probably-looked series. Harden bricked a ton of shots but still produced against Utah’s scheme, averaging 27.8 points, 8.0 assists, and 6.8 rebounds in 36.4 minutes per game. Even with the Jazz trying to junk things up, Houston scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions in Round 1—a significant step down from their regular-season mark, but still good enough to win. They did what they were supposed to do, got where they were supposed to go, and nobody got hurt.

And yet.

A Rockets squad that looked ready to devastate all comers following two home wins suddenly seems a bit shakier after the last three games. Their second-round opponents might not have the goods or even the desire to replicate the unique scheme that Utah deployed, but they’ve just gotten a bunch more tape on how to fluster and frustrate Harden, which can only be a boon to their defensive efforts. Paul shot just 21 percent from 3-point range and frequently looked more steady than superb; the Rockets will need him to be the latter if Harden once again wanes in the back half of a series.

As fantastic as P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela looked at times defensively, and as valuable as Eric Gordon was in muscling Mitchell into his nightmare series, the Jazz did generate a ton of high-quality looks against Houston’s defense. Had Mitchell, Rubio, Joe Ingles, or Jae Crowder actually cashed in on a few of them—the Jazz were 19-for-84 on wide-open 3s heading into Game 5 (worst in the playoffs) and they missed a bunch more on Wednesday—then Houston might have gotten awfully hot under the collar. The Rockets’ Round 2 opponent probably won’t underperform their expected shot quality like that; instead, they’ll likely make a ton of open shots they have no business making.

Then again, it’s not exactly like the Golden State Warriors look bulletproof right now, especially coming off a stunning Game 5 loss to the relentless Los Angeles Clippers—the Dubs’ second loss at Oracle Arena this round—that forces a Game 6 on Friday back in L.A., ensuring that Houston will get a longer break than Golden State would before the rematch that the NBA’s been waiting for all season long. The Rockets want the champs, and they’re not shy about it. Coach Mike D’Antoni sounds positively giddy about it, in fact.

Thanks to old friends Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Co., though, Houston will have to wait a little bit longer and charge up its batteries a little bit more before entering the ring for Round 2. Maybe that’s a win-win. After dispatching the Jazz, it seems like the Rockets could use a little tune-up.

The headline on an earlier version of this piece misstated that the Rockets might face the Warriors in the NBA Finals; Houston might face Golden State in the Western Conference finals.