Houston versus Golden State will happen.
Just not as soon as we had hoped.
For at least one night, the Utah Jazz revealed themselves as a potential giant killer and the Houston Rockets can examine how quickly a home-court advantage can disappear. It happened just like that Wednesday in this Western Conference semifinal series that’s now tied after Utah’s 116-108 win.
The Rockets won’t panic because they have plenty of scary parts. They’re more talented, deeper and more battle-tested than the Jazz. James Harden will win the league MVP award because he’s deserving and also because they can’t give to LeBron every year. Chris Paul is one of the best all-around point guards to ever play the game. Young Clint Capela is the the most underrated big man in the NBA. Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza aren’t new to this playoff thing.
With that said, none of those weapons comes close to the scariest part of the 2018 Houston Rockets:
It’s felled many high seeds in the past and it’s the one thing that could do irreparable damage to a team that expects to be in the Finals next month. It showed up early in Game 2 then reared its ugly head again at money time.
Funny thing about overconfidence. It shouldn’t happen to teams that haven’t won anything, but it did to the Rockets. The Jazz were long thought to be a minor speed bump on the journey to Houston’s inevitable Western Conference finals showdown with the Warriors, but they didn’t get the memo.
The Jazz now are fully engaged and the Rockets, while still superior in so many areas, have been put on notice. It won’t be as easy as many prognosticators had expected, especially after Utah point guard Ricky Rubio suffered a hamstring injury in the first round, but the Jazz are showing some junkyard dog fight in this series.
The top-seeded Rockets went 65-17 in the regular season because they are an elite offense with a couple of good defensive pieces, though head coach Mike D’Antoni will never be confused with Pat Riley or Phil Jackson when it comes to shut-down defense. Houston knows it can erase double-digit deficits in the blink of an eye because of the sheer amount of three-point shooters at its disposal. But with that ability to score in bunches comes a tendency to dare the opposition to trade blow for blow.
The Jazz took the challenge and landed nice knockdowns to even the series. At one point in the second quarter, they led by 19 points against a Houston team that figuratively sleepwalked through the first 16 minutes with their eyes closed and arms outstretched. Utah even gave up the lead in the third quarter only to regain it to win going away. That doesn’t sound like a team that expects to be vacationing in the next couple of weeks.
The Jazz knocked down 15 of 32 three-pointers behind an Aussie set shooter named Joe Ingles, who made 7 of 9, many of the wide open variety. It’s the one thing that should concern the heck out of Houston fans who have already penciled in a date against Warriors. The Rockets gave up clean looks to a team that was missing its point guard and had no answers for electric rookie Donovan Mitchell, who moved over to the point and dished out 11 assists.
As the venue switches to Utah for Game 3 on Friday, the Rockets aren’t really interested in hearing questions about wakeup calls since they heard the same thing during the first-round series against Minnesota. They’re still better than Utah, but the Jazz have nothing to lose because no one outside of Salt Lake City thought this would be a competitive series.
Russell Westbrook will tell you how raucous things can get in the building formerly known as the Delta Center. The Rockets will presumably make some adjustments and maybe, just maybe, we’ll find out if Ingles will have to put the ball on the floor instead of swishing shot after shot from long range like a modern-day Jimmy Chitwood.
“We’ve been there,” Paul said about this upcoming road trip. “It should be jumping.”
Maybe the Rockets needed this jolt of reality before the Golden State series.
Maybe that switch will be flipped once again in their favor.
Or maybe these fearless Jazz are on to something.