HOUSTON (AP) - Utah’s tough defense excelled against almost everyone in the league this season.
The Jazz could not, however, find a way to slow down Houston’s high-powered offense.
Utah tied for first in the league in the regular season by allowing just 99.8 points per game, but the Rockets averaged 116.3 points against the Jazz in a 4-0 sweep of the season series.
Now the Jazz will get another shot at the top-seeded Rockets when they open the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday after outdoing the big three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to eliminate the Thunder in Game 6 on Friday night.
Utah had no answer for MVP front-runner James Harden in the regular season. He averaged 34.3 points against the Jazz, highlighted by a 56-point performance in a 137-110 win in November that set a career-high he has since bested.
“They’re such a unique team,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We have to compete, (that’s) the main thing. … They’re so good. They’ve been the best team in the league all year. They’ve beat us. We know how good they are.”
Despite their success against Utah, the Rockets raved about what the team has done in limiting many of the NBA’s top offenses, with Harden saying they are a “very, very, very good defensive team.”
The Jazz don’t do anything exotic. Harden said it’s simply good, fundamental basketball.
“They’ve got scrappy defenders and they funnel everything to (Rudy) Gobert,” Harden said. “A 7-foot-2 guy that’s top-3 in shot-blocking and contesting and making shots tough, so that’s pretty much it.”
Both the Rockets and the fifth-seeded Jazz are in the semifinals for the second straight year. The Rockets, who beat the Timberwolves 4-1 in the first round to advance, lost to the Spurs last season, and Utah was eliminated by Golden State.
Coach Mike D’Antoni said facing Minnesota’s defense, anchored by Karl-Anthony Towns, was a good warmup for the looks they’ll see against the Jazz and Gobert, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
But in the end, the veteran coach believes the Rockets’ success will have more to do with them than anything the Jazz do.
“We’re going to score,” he said of his team, which ranked second in scoring in the regular season. “To me it depends on us. I just think that we do what we do against anybody and we’re going to score some points if we play well.”
Some things to know about the Jazz-Rockets playoff series:
Jazz starting point guard Ricky Rubio will miss Sunday’s game with a strained left hamstring. Rubio left Friday night’s game against the Thunder in the first quarter with the injury. The team has not said how long he will be out, but Snyder said after Friday’s game he hoped it wasn’t too serious.
“It’s a tough series and it caught up with him a little bit,” Snyder said. “But hopefully he’ll be all right eventually. We don’t know the timeline.”
Rubio missed a few games late in the season with soreness in the same hamstring, but had not left a game with the problem in the postseason until Friday.
LUC NEARING RETURN
Houston’s Luc Mbah a Moute, who missed the entire first round after dislocating his right shoulder, returned to practice this week and is making significant progress toward a return. D’Antoni said he’s unlikely to play on Sunday, but that there is a chance he could play in Game 2 on Wednesday.
NO REST FOR THE WEARY
While Houston has had a few days to rest after wrapping up its series with Minnesota on Wednesday, the Jazz face a quick turnaround after eliminating Oklahoma City on Friday night. The Rockets were off Thursday, but went through full practices on Friday and Saturday in preparation for the series. The Jazz did not practice on Saturday and spent the day traveling to Houston.
“We’ll just do what we can to get ready and get out there,” Snyder said. “Try not to think about being fatigued or anything like that. I don’t think there’s time for that in the playoffs. Get healthy. Try to get our minds right and compete and see where it goes.”
ROOKIE NO MORE
With how Utah’s Donovan Mitchell played in the first round, the Rockets don’t view him as a rookie anymore. The 13th overall pick in the draft out of Louisville scored 38 points in Game 6 to lead the Jazz to the victory.
“Mitchell’s doing things that I don’t think a rookie’s ever done. … (He’s) playing like he’s a 20-year vet,” D’Antoni said.
Houston’s Trevor Ariza, who will spend the most time guarding Mitchell in this series, has seen him grow since the first time he faced him.
“I think he’s definitely gained a lot of confidence,” Ariza said. “He’s tough. He’s a really good player. You can’t take him lightly.”
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