SALT LAKE CITY – The Houston Rockets are on the verge of their first seven-game series sweep since they last claimed the NBA title in 1994-95 with a four-game sweep of the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
Houston's gritty 104-101 victory on Saturday night in Utah put the team in position to do what all 132 teams in the same situation, leading a series 3-0, have done before -- win the series. No team has come back from a three games to none deficit in NBA playoff history and nothing about what has taken place in the first three games suggests that the Jazz will be that team to break through.
Even with James Harden missing his first 15 shots in Game 3, the Rockets were right there with the Jazz step for step. Then in the fourth quarter, when Harden knocked down three of his final five shots including a pair of three-pointers, the Rockets pushed the Jazz to the brink of elimination.
Here are the keys to a Rockets Game 4 victory:
Maintain the same focus
Houston has a commanding lead in the series mainly because their defense has held the Jazz down consistently over the entire series. The Jazz were 10th in the NBA in field goal percentage during the regular season at 46.8 percent. This series they are shooting 40.1 percent. They've also made just 25.5 percent of their three-pointers, easily the worst among playoff teams, after knocking them down at 35.6 percent clip in the regular season, also ranking 10th. While the Jazz have missed a lot of wide-open looks, including Donovan Mitchell's potential game-tying attempt in the final seconds of Game 3, the Rockets have done a good job of closing out on shooters with their rotations.
Answer the opening bell
The Rockets fell behind 8-0 to open Game 3 and saw Harden pick up two fouls before two minutes had even elapsed. The reason Game 3 didn't tilt in Utah's favor is because the Rockets had an immediate answer, tying the game just a few minutes later and never letting Utah open up a lead larger than six the rest of the game. The Jazz crowd was phenomenal, and as Austin Rivers acknowledged after the game it was nearly impossible to communicate when on the court. If the Rockets allow the Jazz to get rolling and extend the advantage, the crowd will be deafening and make things very difficult on the Rockets to avoid a Game 5.
Bang the glass
The Jazz had the fifth highest rebound percentage in the NBA this season, the Rockets had the fourth worst. Yet in this series, the Rockets have flipped that, out-rebounding the Jazz. This falls on every player on the court. P.J. Tucker's 10-rebound effort in Game 3 was key to getting the 3-0 advantage, especially his final two rebounds. With the Rockets up just two, he corralled the Harden's miss with 10 seconds remaining and was fouled. He then grabbed Mitchell's miss in the final seconds and proceeded to knock down the ensuing free throws which sealed the win. Harden, Clint Capela, Rivers, Eric Gordon and Kenneth Faried must play big on the boards, especially if the Jazz continue their subpar shooting. Defensive rebounding has been a season-long issue for the Rockets, but it's been much improved in this series.