SALT LAKE CITY — Everyone knows about the Houston Rockets‘ commitment to math: prioritizing layups, free throws and 3-pointers over any other shot, specifically those in the midrange. And after Game 3 against the Utah Jazz on Friday, James Harden and Chris Paul sat by each other and were asked about the fact the Rockets uncharacteristically took 28 from midrange.
“Probably about 20 of them were from me,” Paul joked.
All season, Paul has been self-aware and often self-deprecating about one of the strengths of his game not exactly fitting with his new team’s core philosophy.
Harden interjected: “As you should,” clearly not joking at all. He had a point to make. “That’s a layup for him.”
And in Game 4, as the Jazz have progressively tried to scout and eliminate Houston’s drive-and-kick actions, with the Rockets shooting it poorly (10-of-38 from 3, 26.3 percent), it was Paul’s midrange proficiency that paid off. With 27 points on 12-of-23 shooting in Houston’s 100-87 Game 4 win to take a 3-1 series lead, Paul hit the Jazz with inefficient dagger after inefficient dagger. Analytics be damned; sometimes you have to let a master of the midrange work his craft.
“Every rule has an exception,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said on Friday. “When you’re that good at something, even the number guys are like, ‘Yeah, that works’ because the numbers are right. If you’re just normal, that wouldn’t work. That’s one of the reasons I’m sure the organization got Chris, for a lot of different reasons, but that’s definitely a bonus.”
There were a lot of questions preseason about how Paul would fit next to Harden, whether two players so ball-dominant could coexist. D’Antoni solved much of that by cleverly splitting their playing time with staggered rotations, but their success together, particularly in Game 4, came because they’re just, like, really stinking good.
D’Antoni said pregame he never really doubted Paul and Harden could work together, noting his belief stemmed from the fact that it was the two of them who decided to play together. The decision was made by them to make it work, and it came before they even played a game together. And with the way Harden talked after Game 3, it was as if he was making sure Paul understood what the Rockets still need from him. Offense can be difficult to execute in the slog of a playoff series; sometimes what you need is just someone who can get a bucket.
That simple basketball principle was evident throughout Game 4, as the Rockets just steadily produced as the Jazz were forced to grind possession by possession. What the Jazz were in desperate need of in Game 3, and for most of Game 4, was for Donovan Mitchell to get going. He has been asked to do a lot more than any rookie should be in a playoff series, but the Jazz are in a position in which Mitchell has to carry them. The Rockets are dug in defensively and eliminating a lot of the side-to-side ball movement “blender” plays the Jazz abused teams with all season long. The casual catch-and-shoot 3s just aren’t there. So it’s on Mitchell to assert himself — and with a binge late in the first half, he finally did.
Those sparks were fleeting, with another coming in the fourth, but it was never sustainable. It always felt like the Rockets were far closer to blowing the game open than it did the Jazz truly getting back in it. Every push Utah made was dramatic — a 5-0 run in the second quarter had the building shaking — but the Rockets scored with just ease and efficiency when the Jazz couldn’t make an actual dent.
There was another Jazz mini-run in the third — a Joe Ingles 3, then an Ingles runner, then a Gobert dunk — but it was met by five quick points from Eric Gordon, a Clint Capela dunk after both teams went scoreless for two minutes, and a Paul jumper at the free throw line.
Utah cut it to 85-80 with 5:58 left, but again, five points felt like 50. Capela put back his own miss, Trevor Ariza banged home a corner 3 and Paul cashed in from midrange to answer an Ingles layup.
That’s so much of this series in a nutshell: The Rockets score effortlessly and carefree, never having to worry too much about where or how it’ll come, while the Jazz had to grind for five points over a minute. What worked so well in Game 2 for Utah was exploiting a brief flaw in Houston’s pick-and-roll help that allowed Gobert some dunks, that the Rockets shot poorly from 3 and that Ingles and Jae Crowder hit some tough contested jumpers.
The Jazz tried to play with more force, opening the game with an abundance of energy and emotion. But it took almost four minutes for them to score their first bucket. The Rockets have options A, B and C, with each varying their degrees of necessity. They hit the Jazz in waves, never feeling the threat of the feathery haymakers Utah was throwing. This is an educated, intelligent, veteran team that knows what it’s doing and knows how to win games.
And with Paul now one game away from finally checking the box on something he has had hanging over his head his whole career — a trip to the conference finals — he detoured a bit from the plan and did what was necessary. And as the Rockets generated better shots from better players, regardless of location, eventually the math was going to sort itself out.