Game 2 win puts Jazz in position for upset anew

NBA.com Global on May 03, 2018 07:20 PM
Game 2 win puts Jazz in position for upset anew
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives to the basket as Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker defends during the second half in Game 2 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Wednesday, May 2, 2018, in Houston. The Jazz won 116-108. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HOUSTON — They’ve already sprung one upset this postseason.

Do the Utah Jazz have another one in them?

There’s no reason to doubt the fearless, short-handed Jazz after they toppled the Houston Rockets in Toyota Center Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) with a 116-108 win in Game 2 over the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, evening up this second-round series at 1-1.

The Jazz led by 19 before halftime, surrendered that advantage and trailed by five in the third quarter before re-taking control with a decisive 16-2 run late to shock the Jazz and snatch home court advantage with Games 3 and 4 this weekend in Salt Lake City.

“That to me was maybe the most important thing in the game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of his team’s resilience. “To get off to a good start and play well and then you know they’re going to come back. It’s just a question of how far and how quickly, and I thought they cut the gap and not only made it a game, but basically took control of the game.

"I think we could feel that. At that point, for our guys to keep their focus on what we’re trying to do, and continue to run and continue to shoot and try to defend says a lot about the team and how they function together and that they didn’t break at that point.”

Playing into May wasn’t supposed to be in the cards for this Jazz team that lost All-Star Gordon Hayward to Boston in free agency. Only six players returned from the fifth-seeded squad that knocked off the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round last season and got swept by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals.

There weren't necessarily any playoff expectations for this team at the start of training camp.

But no one told rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, who has led the Jazz all season and in their upset of Oklahoma City in six games in their first-round series.

Mitchell shot just 6-for-21 from the floor, filling in for injured starting point guard Ricky Rubio, but showed up every time the Jazz needed him. He registered five assists in the first six minutes as the Jazz took control, finishing with 17 points, a career-high 11 assists, five rebounds and a jaw-dropping dunk on his own missed floater in the fourth quarter that helped ignited his team’s game-closing run.

“Just being poised and staying under control was the biggest thing,” Mitchell said. “Understand how they were going to guard me and when you have the big fella [Rudy Gobert] rolling as fas he did, making the right plays to kind of predict what the defense was going to do next.”

Clearly no one mentioned it to Joe Ingles, one of those six veteran holdovers from last season. The veteran forward smoked the Rockets for a career-high 27 points, drained 10 of his 13 shots, including 7-of-9 from beyond the three-point line, two huge ones in the final five minute to help hold the Rockets off.

“Just sticking together and just keep executing,” Ingles said about what carried the Jazz down the stretch. “We knew they were going to make runs. So just sticking together, I think we did a really good job of that and we were able to make our runs when it was our turn.”

It was the sort of group effort that has been the trademark of this Jazz team all season. Mitchell and Ingles served as the catalysts for an inspired bunch that jumped on the Rockets early, took the home team’s best retaliatory shots, and then pounced at the finish. Their confidence in each other and the rest of their teammates was obvious after two full days to study and digest how they wanted to attack the Rockets after getting drilled in the series opener.

The Jazz bench nearly doubled up their Rockets counterparts in scoring (41-22) and got a career night from Alec Burks (17 points, six assists), a double-double from Jae Crowder (15 points and 10 rebounds) and quality work on both ends of the floor from Dante Exum, whose drive-and-dunk with 55.3 seconds to play closed the door on any hopes the Rockets had of a last-minute comeback of their own.

“I thought Dante’s dunk was better than mine,” Mitchell said.

The Jazz hit a franchise playoff-high 15 three-pointers and finally beat a Rockets team that had owned them in the five games (wins all by 11 or more points) they played leading up to Wednesday's (Thursday, PHL time) dramatic momentum shifter.

It was the game Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni had been dreading as his team eased its way into this postseason. They played three outstanding quarters in five games against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round.

They led the Jazz by 27 points in Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) opener but watched that lead dwindle to just 11 points after halftime, as the Jazz found some cracks in the Rockets’ improved defense down the stretch.

He warned his team about thinking they could flip the switch in the postseason just because they’d won a league-best 65 games during the regular season. The real wake-up call didn’t come until now.

“Yeah, we flipped it,” D’Antoni said. “We came back from 19 down. We flipped it and then they flipped it back on us. You've got to give them credit, they played great down the stretch. They hit shots, they did what they were supposed to do.”

The Jazz did exactly what they did to the Thunder in the first round. They studied the film from their Game 1 loss, made the necessary adjustments and finished that series in six games, never allowing the Thunder to enjoy the home-court advantage they earned for that series.

Duplicating that feat against these Rockets should prove to be a much tougher task, especially without Rubio, who was one of the most animated individuals on the Jazz bench all night while rocking Mitchell’s signature rookie sweatshirt.

His hamstring injury might force Mitchell to continue working at the point for the remainder of the series. It remains to be seen, though, if that’s an advantage for the Rockets.

For all the work Kia MVP frontrunner James Harden (32 points, 11 assists and six rebounds) and Chris Paul (23 points, five rebounds and three assists) did in Game 2, neither one of them could will their team to the win the way the rookie did the Jazz.

“They were just too comfortable,” Paul said. “They were getting layups, dunks, free throws, a little bit of everything. We fought back hard. But give them a lot of credit, they did what they were supposed to do. They came in here and got a win.”

The pressure is on the Rockets now to do the same in Utah.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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