Rockets clinch Southwest Division with win over Jazz
HOUSTON — Rockets guard James Harden earned the right for a moment of reflection, no matter how brief it may be, considering all that Houston has been through during its injury-ravaged campaign.
Harden posted his fourth triple-double this season as the Rockets turned an explosive second quarter into a 117-91 rout of the Utah Jazz in their regular-season finale on Wednesday night at the Toyota Center, a victory that helped clinch the Southwest Division title.
Harden finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, recording assists on three consecutive possessions late in the third quarter to reach the statistical benchmark. By then, the Rockets (56-26) were comfortably ahead by 35 points and en route to a first-round showdown with their division rival, the Dallas Mavericks.
By virtue of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 108-103 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, Houston claimed the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. For lengthy stretches, the Rockets were without center Dwight Howard and forward Terrence Jones, and will enter the playoffs missing Patrick Beverley (wrist) and Donatas Motiejunas (back). A division crown under those circumstances is worthy of celebration.
“That’s a great accomplishment for us,” said Harden, the first Houston player with four triple-doubles in a season since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1989-90. “We’re very proud of that. We’re going to let it sink in tonight and sit back and reflect on the great season we’ve had and get ready for this postseason. “
Reserve swingman Corey Brewer scored 14 points and served as the linchpin in the Rockets’ runaway second quarter. Jones added 15 points and three blocks while Howard chipped in 14 points, eight boards and two blocks. Reserve forward Josh Smith hit 3 of 5 3-pointers for 13 points as Houston earned its first division championship since 1993-94.
Rookie guard Rodney Hood was the only Utah starter to reach double figures with 10 points. The Jazz (38-44) largely turned to reserves after the Rockets expanded their lead to 89-50 with 2:20 left in the third quarter. Guard Bryce Cotton scored 14 points while forwards Chris Johnson and Jeremy Evans added 13 and 10, respectively.
“We were a bit undermanned and they are an awfully good team,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
“I think it was just a transition game, getting back and then getting to the corner 3s,” Jazz guard Dante Exum said. “James Harden finding their open shooters, and that allowed them to get the lead and we weren’t able to convert on the other end.”
The Rockets stretched a 31-20 lead entering the second quarter to 17 points before things really got out of hand, reeling off a 17-2 run that built the lead to 62-30 via a hail of 3-pointers and transition baskets.
Harden and Brewer sparked the breakout. Harden nailed a stepback 3-pointer immediately after Jones’ trey lifted the Rockets to a 30-point lead and just before two Brewer fast-break layups. Jones added a transition dunk in between the Brewer baskets off a nifty Harden assist.
Rockets guard Jason Terry drilled a trey with 1:31 left, with Harden again netting the assist, to cap the run. Houston scored 16 fast-break points in the second and nailed 6 of 11 3-pointers. Utah aided the Rockets’ cause with six turnovers in the quarter and watched helplessly as Houston steamrolled into the postseason, where bigger goals await.
“We want to win a championship; that’s the goal,” Howard said. “You want to have a great regular season, but the most important thing is what you do in the playoffs. We can have tonight to think about what we did this season and all the things we’ve accomplished as a team, but after that we’ve got to let it go and have our eyes on the prize.”
NOTES: Jazz F Gordon Hayward sat out the regular-season finale with right Achilles inflammation. He played in 76 games in 2014-15 and averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists. ... Jazz G Trey Burke returned to the rotation after missing two games with lower back soreness. ... Rockets coach Kevin McHale inferred that C Dwight Howard would remain on a minutes restriction in the postseason. Howard did not eclipse 30 minutes in any of the nine games he played after his return from right knee surgery, and that parameter seems likely for the playoffs.