By RJ Saunders
Salt Lake City, Utah — On his 33rd birthday, Chris Paul dropped 27 points and six assists to help the top-seed Houston Rockets take both games on the road in Salt Lake City en route to a Game 4 100-87 victory over the fifth-seed Utah Jazz, giving Houston a 3-1 series lead.
Houston won the match-up simply by controlling the pace of the game from start to finish and an impressive defensive performance. When Utah would make a run, you didn’t see the Rockets players phased by it one bit. The Jazz came out with a lot of energy, and both teams looked to drive the ball inside early. Spectators even saw guys like Dante Exum coming off the bench giving Utah nine points on 4-of-5 shooting.
However, the Rockets remained calm, which allowed James Harden in the first quarter to drive the ball as well to counteract what the Jazz was doing in that first frame. By being aggressive offensively, Harden was able to get to the line seven times in that first quarter and get Exum, as well as Jae Crowder, into early foul trouble.
Then, the scoring torch was handed off to Paul. He had 10 points in the second quarter and made it look effortless. Paul played with complete composure — even when Donovan Mitchell went on a run of his own for the Jazz. Mitchell had a 15-point second quarter, and he, along with Royce O’Neale, scored the last 21 of Utah’s 25 points prior to intermission.
Still, though, the Jazz was down by 10 going into halftime because the Rockets’ two best players were controlling the pace of the game. To add to their firepower, center Clint Capela was grabbing and tracking down rebounds on the offensive end for second chance opportunities. The Rockets also weren’t turning the ball over, which led to more opportunities to convert on their possessions.
After halftime, Paul and Harden continued to exploit Utah’s defense. By the conclusion of the night, Houston’s duo combined for 51 points on 20-of-45 shooting. While the team struggled from deep (26% on the night), Paul’s mid-range game was vital to the Rockets keeping the lead as he continued to knock down shots over defenders. Even though Harden tallied 24 points, he was in a bit of a slump as he only made eight of his 22 shots attempted on the night.
Yet, he and Chris Paul are possibly the two best players in terms of pace that we have in the NBA. In addition, they counteracted what Utah was trying to do which was attempting to turn the game of basketball into a track meet. The Rockets can play that style, but understood that this style wasn’t going to win the game Sunday tonight. So, they slowed the pace down and played their game.
Setting the speed of the game wasn’t the only reason the Rockets came out on top on Sunday: defensively, they were amazing as well. Capela, who seems like a man who likes listening to rap music or R&B, let Jazz be the genre of choice at his block party as he finished the game with six blocks. He was also a beast on the boards, finishing with 15, with five of those being offensive.
Sunday night the Rockets proved they are not just a three-point shooting team, as a great defensive team effort was key to snagging another win and pulling Houston one win shy of playing in the Western Conference Championship. In the third quarter, they held the Jazz to a playoff-low 17 points and held Mitchell to only two points in the third as well. On top of eliminating their point production, the Rockets forced Utah into turning the ball over 17 times.
Now I believe that we all have kind of marked the Houston Rockets down as a team that just wants to shoot threes. Furthermore, it’s probably been agreed upon by many that if Houston cannot convert on any of their three-point shots, then they can’t win a game.
But, Sunday night they proved that isn’t true. The Rockets played a composed style of basketball and won Sunday’s game on the defensive end. That’s called winning a game in a different way than just of the three-point variety.
This Houston team shouldn’t be taken lightly because they haven’t played their best basketball yet in these playoffs. And if they keep this up where they find other ways to win, they’ll be a tough team to stop in the Western Conference Finals.