Houston, Texas: James Harden was patchy and his team far from perfect, but the Houston Rockets are marching on to the Western Conference semifinals, courtesy of a hard-fought series-clinching victory over the Utah Jazz.
Harden scored 26 points in a 100-93 Game 5 win on Wednesday, pitching the Rockets into a likely rematch against the Golden State Warriors, whom they took to the brink in last season’s conference finals.
Having surged to a 3-0 series lead, things became a little tricky for Houston. After surrendering Game 4 on the road, Wednesday’s showdown was tight and tense right up until the point where the Jazz lost their shooting touch over the final few minutes.
James Harden got it done in Game 5 to help fuel the @HoustonRockets past the Jazz and onto the next round! ?
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 25, 2019
Clint Capela added 16 points and 10 rebounds in a powerful performance for the home side, which arrested an early-season slump to play their way into form at just the right time.
Veteran guard Chris Paul believes the toughness of the Utah matchup will stand the team in good stead for what lies ahead.
“That’s a good team over there,” Paul said. “You know how deep the West is. We knew they weren’t going to go away easy. That’s how it is in the playoffs, it is totally different to the regular season. By the time you get to Game 5 everybody knows (how you play).”
Royce O’Neale led Utah with 18 points as their season ended in disappointment. The Rockets, meanwhile, will hope to see Harden back to his imperious best in the next round.
“We just have to worry about us,” Paul added. “We will just watch the (Warriors-Clippers) game like everybody else in the world and see what happens.”
Harden and Paul were complimentary of Mitchell despite his struggles on Wednesday night and know he has a bright future.
“He’s confident,” Harden said. “You see what he did last game. He’s capable of taking over a game. Once he gets more comfortable in his role … the sky’s the limit for him.”
D’Antoni on his team’s win: “Everybody contributed something and it’s by their heart and just their tenacity to get the win. Going forward we’re going to need the same thing.”
Rockets’ Capela: Warriors rematch ‘what I want’
The faces of the Rockets franchise preferred to wait until the Golden State Warriors punched their ticket out of the first round to discuss the looming rematch with the dynasty that eliminated Houston last season.
James Harden declined to answer a question about the Warriors in the wake of the Rockets grinding out a 100-93 win in Game 5 on Wednesday to eliminate the Utah Jazz, saying he would wait and see what happened in Golden State’s series with the LA Clippers first.
That was Chris Paul’s plan, too, until Clint Capela blurted out the truth.
“That’s what I want,” said Capela, the rising star center who created headlines last season for declaring to ESPN that he believed the Rockets were better than the Warriors when they executed well. “I want to face them.”
The Clippers prevented the Warriors from granting Capela’s wish — at least momentarily — as Los Angeles extended the series with a 129-121 road win over Golden State in Game 5 later Wednesday night.
Paul, who was seated next to Capela at the podium after Harden conducted a solo news conference several minutes earlier, responded with a sigh. Paul, the savvy veteran point guard, instantly knew that Capela’s confident comment would go viral.
“Look at you,” Paul said, glancing at a reporter. “You can’t wait to tweet that.”
But Capela, who bounced back from an illness-influenced poor performance in Houston’s Game 4 loss with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks in the close-out victory, kept going. He saw no reason to hide the fact that the Rockets have been hoping to get another crack at the Warriors since being eliminated by Golden State in Game 7 of last spring’s Western Conference finals.
“We’ve been working on it all year long,” Capela said. “I think if you want to be the champion, you’ve got to beat the champion. So at some point, you’ve got to do it, right?”
That was a point that was conceded by Paul, who missed the last two games of last season’s West finals due to a hamstring strain, an injury many in the Rockets organization are convinced cost them an NBA championship.
“Yep, make sure y’all put that, too,” Paul said, meaning the full context of Capela’s desire to see the Warriors in the second round.
“CC said it best. Real talk, in order to get to where you’re trying to get to, you’ve got to go through them. They’re the reigning champs, been running the West for like five years straight now.”
The Rockets, known primarily for their historically elite offense led by Harden, earned their way to the second round in gritty fashion against the defensively dominant Jazz.
After opening the series with a pair of home routs, the Rockets sputtered offensively in the final few games, when Harden averaged 26.0 points (more than 10 fewer than his league-leading average) on 32.3 percent shooting. But the Rockets played stingy defense throughout the series, holding the Jazz under 100 points three times in the series, although some poor shooting by Utah helped Houston’s cause.
It was fitting that a couple of defensive stops were the key plays in the Rockets sealing the Game 5 win and closing out the series. With Houston up one and 54.8 seconds remaining, Eric Gordon stole the ball from Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz star whom Gordon smothered all series, especially during Mitchell’s 12-point, 4-of-22 shooting, five-turnover outing Monday. After PJ Tucker sunk a pair of free throws, Harden swiped the ball out of Rudy Gobert’s hand as the Jazz big man went up for a dunk, essentially ending Utah’s season.
“We didn’t make as [many] shots as we wanted to offensively, but these last few games, we hung our hat on defense,” said Harden, who finished Game 5 with 26 points on 10-of-26 shooting despite a 1-of-11 start and contributed three steals and four blocks. “That’s what’s going to get us to our goal. Shotmaking is extra. It’s a bonus. If we’re guarding like we’re guarding and knocking down our shots, it’s going to be real tough.”
Of course, it has been real tough to beat the Warriors in the playoffs for the past five seasons, when their only series loss has come in the 2016 NBA Finals. It’s a challenge that the Rockets will readily embrace.
It doesn’t bother Houston that a date with the Warriors would come a series before last season, the result of the Rockets dropping to the Western Conference’s fourth seed on the final day of the regular season after spending months digging out of the hole they created with an 11-14 start. The sooner, the better, some Rockets figure.
“I don’t mind playing them this early,” Gordon said. “Everybody’s going to be fresh. I’m glad nobody’s injured. We’re going to have everybody ready, so I’m glad where we are right now.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni tried to delay the discussion about a rematch with the Warriors, saying it was premature. However, he couldn’t resist weighing in just a little bit.
“You know, we said all year that we were going to run it back,” D’Antoni said with a laugh, referring to Houston’s slogan this season. “Well, OK. I guess we’re going to run it back.”