Har­den’s 41 points lead Rock­ets over Jazz in Game 1

West Hawaii Today - - Sports - BY KRISTIE RIEKEN

HOUS­TON — James Har­den proved once again that Utah’s vaunted de­fense was no match for him.

Har­den scored 41 points and the Hous­ton Rock­ets raced out to a huge lead and sailed to a 110-96 win over the Jazz in Game 1 of the Western Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals on Sun­day.

Hous­ton was up by 25 at half­time be­hind 34 points com­bined from Har­den and Chris Paul. The Jazz, who didn’t wrap up their firstround se­ries with Oklahoma City un­til late Fri­day night, looked slug­gish and strug­gled to keep pace with the top-seeded Rock­ets, who hadn’t played since elim­i­nat­ing Min­nesota on Wed­nes­day.

The Jazz tied for sec­ond in the NBA in the reg­u­lar sea­son by al­low­ing just 99.8 points, but failed to stop Har­den in any of their meet­ings. Har­den, who also had seven as­sists and eight re­bounds, picked up where he left off in the reg­u­lar sea­son against the Jazz when he av­er­aged 34.3 points, led by a 56-point per­for­mance in a 137-110 win in Novem­ber.

“Their de­fense is re­ally good — their de­fense is su­per,” Hous­ton coach Mike D’An­toni said. “But James is James.”

Utah coach Quin Sny­der seemed at a loss as to how to limit the MVP front-run­ner, who had the sixth 40-point play­off game of his ca­reer.

“He’s a spe­cial player,” he said. “It’s hard to give credit to all the things that he does. He just im­pacts the game in so many mays. You have to try to make it harder for him.”

It was Hous­ton’s fourth straight win by 10 or more points this post­sea­son, and the Rock­ets have won their five games against the Jazz by an av­er­age of 16.8 points.

“We’re dif­fer­ent,” Har­den said. “We’ve seen so many dif­fer­ent de­fenses through­out this year that have pre­pared us for this mo­ment.”

The Jazz got 21 points each from rookie Dono­van Mitchell and Jae Crow­der while play­ing with­out

start­ing point guard Ricky Ru­bio, who sat with a strained left ham­string. It was a sig­nif­i­cant blow af­ter he av­er­aged 14 points, 7.3 re­bounds and seven as­sists in the first round.

The Jazz re­fused to blame their tough game on the fact that they didn’t have much of a break be­tween the first and sec­ond round.

“It’s a quick turn­around ob­vi­ously and there’s some fa­tigue,” Mitchell said. “But that wasn’t the rea­son for the per­for­mance.”

The Rock­ets had 10 3-point­ers by half­time,

led by three apiece from Har­den and P. J. Tucker. They fin­ished with 17, in­clud­ing seven from Har­den, which tied his ca­reer-high for a play­off game.

The Rock­ets were up by 18 en­ter­ing the fourth af­ter Paul hit a 3-pointer at the end of the third. Utah scored the first seven points of the fourth quar­ter to get within 86-75, but Har­den made three free throws over the next minute to end the run.

Rudy Gobert, who had 11 points and nine re­bounds, had a dunk af­ter that, but a 3-pointer by Har­den ex­tended Hous­ton’s lead to 92-77 with about 8½ min­utes left.

Mitchell was shaken up when Eric Gor­don stepped on his an­kle as he drove to the bas­ket with about 5½ min­utes re­main­ing. He stayed on the court for a sec­ond hold­ing his an­kle be­fore hop­ping up and walk­ing gin­gerly to the bench. But re­mained on the bench for just a few sec­onds be­fore re­turn­ing and said af­ter the game that he was OK.

Both the Rock­ets and the fifth-seeded Jazz are in the semi­fi­nals for the sec­ond straight year. The Rock­ets, who beat the Tim­ber­wolves in five games to ad­vance, lost to the Spurs last sea­son, and Utah was elim­i­nated by Golden State.

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