SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – James Harden never worried. In fact, he didn’t know he had missed his first 15 shots.
Through it all, he never changed the attacking style that made him the NBA’s leading scorer.
Harden overcame a poor shooting performance and scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Houston Rockets to a 104-101 win Saturday over the Utah Jazz for a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.
”Keep shooting. Keep being aggressive,” Harden said of his only thoughts. ”My job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes.”
Not much has worked against Harden for the Jazz, and even when they thought they had him trapped, they weren’t able to control The Beard for a full game.
”You’re going to give something up. The best thing you can do with him is just try to make it hard on him. Even when you do that, there’s times where he’s going to make plays,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.
The Jazz didn’t take it easy on Harden, and took every opportunity to knock him down, even when it sent him to the line. For one of the rare times this season, Harden passed up some shots. But he did take them – and make them – when they counted most.
Though the victory was hardly a thing of beauty, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was grateful for the way it went down.
”Sooner or later we have to win games on defense. We did this time,” D’Antoni said of his team which is known for Harden’s lethal 3-point attack but has drastically improved on the defensive end since mid-season.
Harden made a 3-pointer and added two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to give the Rockets a 101-97 lead. After Donovan Mitchell made two free throws, Harden missed another 3-point attempt, but P.J. Tucker, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, grabbed the rebound, was fouled, making one of two free throws.
Chris Paul said: ”You trust (Tucker) to make those plays. … He’s going to do anything and everything to help the team win.”
Mitchell had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but like so many of his shots in the hard-fought contest, it was off the mark.
Game 4 of the best-of-seven Western Conference series is Monday night in Utah.
”We didn’t shoot the ball well and we still won. That just gives us more confidence,” said Harden, who was 3-for-20 shooting with 10 assists. He was 14 for 16 from the line.
Paul scored 18 points and Clint Capela had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Rockets, who shot 38.4 percent from the field and 67.6 percent from the line.
Mitchell scored 34 points, but struggled shooting, too, making just 9 of his 27 attempts. Derrick Favors had 13 for the Jazz.
Royce O’Neale, who played tenacious defense on Harden, made a 3-pointer for Utah’s last lead at 89-88. In fact, the Jazz led most of the game, but never by more than eight.
The Rockets made their move in the fourth quarter.
Gerald Green made back-to-back 3-pointers and Harden added a pair of free throws with 8:33 remaining put the Rockets up 84-80.
After two slow starts in Houston, the Jazz came out energized with a deafening crowd hanging on every basket. Utah led 11-3 and Harden picked up two fouls in the first 94 seconds, but stayed on the court. He couldn’t find his rhythm until the stretch run.
The Rockets have made no secret they are keying on Mitchell and Ingles to take away their playmaking and make other Utah players beat them. So far, no one else has made them pay.
Mitchell vowed to be more aggressive and apologized for being a ”no show” early in the series. He re-introduced himself to the series in an exuberant show of shot-making and open emotion after big plays. But it didn’t last.
”I just started missing shots,” Mitchell said. ”I can’t miss 16 shots (after the first quarter). That’s my role and I can’t miss makeable shots.”
Prior to Saturday’s big game, Mitchell was shooting 32.6% and had more turnovers (nine) than assists (six). After his hot start, Mitchell missed 11 straight field goal attempts but never stopped attacking.
Harden was missing 3-pointers and floaters, including two that were rejected by Rudy Gobert early in the game, and didn’t convert one until his emphatic fast-break dunk with 7:34 to play. But then he made a step-back 3-pointer to give Houston its largest lead at 89-83.
The leading MVP candidate did get to the line – something the Jazz have tried desperately to avoid.
Gobert had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.
The teams combined for 72 free throws and at least one player hit the hardwood on almost every call.
”It was a lot of emotion, a lot of physicality out there,” Harden said. ”It was playoff basketball.”
Gobert said the Rockets finally got a taste of the Jazz defense that propelled them to 50 wins this season.
”The way we started the game, we were tough and they felt us. I don’t think they felt us the first two games,” Gobert said.
Game 4 is Monday night at 8:30 p.m.