EditorsNote: adds quotes from both teams
Chris Paul scored a postseason career-high 41 points, and PJ Tucker chipped in 19 as the Houston Rockets defeated the visiting Utah Jazz 112-102 on Tuesday to claim their Western Conference semifinal series in five games.
Paul, who scored 20 points in the fourth quarter, totaled seven rebounds with 10 assists (and no turnovers) in the clinching victory. He connected on 8 of 10 3-point attempts and teamed with Tucker to put down the Jazz for good, scoring 13 consecutive points before feeding Tucker for a corner 3-pointer that pushed Houston’s lead to 110-100 with 35 seconds left.
Tucker finished 5 of 7 from behind the arc and helped the Rockets overcome pedestrian efforts from MVP candidate James Harden, who totaled 18 points on 7-of-22 shooting, and Eric Gordon, who missed 6 of 8 shots and had five points. Excluding Paul and Tucker, Houston shot 5 of 22 from 3-point range.
“We knew what was at stake,” Harden said during a TNT postgame interview. “We didn’t want to go back to Utah.”
The Rockets advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time in four seasons. Paul will do so for the first time in his stellar 13-year career after 86 postseason games played.
“We will enjoy tonight but get ready for whoever we play next,” Paul told TNT after the win. “A lot of people don’t know this, but this guy (Harden) was under the weather today. To come out, get this win ... We needed this.”
Rookie Donovan Mitchell led Utah with 24 points but departed due to a left foot injury at the 7:09 mark of the fourth quarter and did not return. Alec Burks added 22 off the bench while Royce O’Neale scored 17. Rudy Gobert turned in his best game of the series with 12 points, nine boards and five blocks.
“I thought the way it evolved, (Mitchell) has been in a situation this series that is unique,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said afterward. “To be handed a ball and asked to run the offense against a team as good as Houston’s? He just kept competing. ... You saw, he plays with joy. He’s fun to play with, fun to coach. Very proud of him and his effort. He knows that.”
Mitchell took over the third quarter and willed the Jazz back into contention. After Houston forged an 11-point lead on two Clint Capela free throws at the 7:16 mark, Mitchell ignited a 12-0 run with a step-back jumper, a layup through a foul, and an assist on a corner 3-pointer by Burks. Utah surged ahead 64-63 on the Burks basket.
Mitchell scored the final 14 points of the third for the Jazz, abusing each and every defender the Rockets sent in his direction. He accomplished most of his handiwork off the dribble, utilizing his quickness to get to the rim. With 1:16 left in the period, Mitchell drilled a pull-up trey for a 78-72 lead. He had 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the period, and Utah took a 78-75 lead into the fourth.
“That’s like my little brother,” Paul told TNT about Mitchell, who used the Rockets veteran as a sounding board before last year’s draft and throughout this season. “I talk to him all the time. I haven’t talked to him one time this series. I told him (after the game), ‘Hell of a series. Get healthy.’”
Paul was instrumental in building a halftime advantage for the Rockets, snapping a 43-all tie with two free throws before drilling consecutive 3-pointers inside the final minute of the first half. His assist on a Tucker 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds left offered a bit of foreshadowing down the stretch.
“He just willed us to win,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Paul. “His performance tonight was off the charts ... We were running a little bit on fumes. (Paul’s) message (in a team huddle) was, ‘Nobody is tired. It’s a state of mind.’”
For Utah, the season may be over, but the franchise’s future seems bright coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and the emergence of the dynamic Mitchell.
“This is as grateful as I’ve been, the time I’ve been doing this, to be part of a team that has the resilience and toughness they showed,” Snyder said. “I don’t know that you can ask for a better effort than what we showed tonight.”
—Field Level Media