HOUSTON – The Rockets have a chance to advance beyond the first round for the third straight season, provided they can finish off the Utah Jazz in Game 5 at Toyota Center on Wednesday night.
The Rockets lead the series 3-1 after a tough loss in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Here are a few keys to Harden and Co. putting this series away Wednesday.
Get off to a fast start
In Games 3 and 4 in Utah, the Jazz were the aggressors out of the gate -- giving them confidence and allowing the home crowd to quickly get into it. Houston needs to flip that script at home, letting their crowd become a factor, and not allowing the Jazz to get comfortable.
As dynamic a scorer as Utah’s Donovan Mitchell is, this Jazz team isn’t built to climb out of big holes. Houston cannot let Utah find an offensive rhythm and dictate the pace. Just as the Rockets did in Game 2 -- also at Toyota Center -- they need to throw the first punch and force the Jazz out of their comfort zone.
Better bench play
Houston earned its split in Utah despite a historically bad shooting night from MVP James Harden in Game 3 (3-20 FG, 0-15 to start the game). A big reason the Rockets were able to overcome that was the play of the new-look bench. Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Danuel House Jr. and Kenneth Faried combined for 29 points, 6-11 (3-pt.) FG, 15 rebounds and just two turnovers.
Monday in Game 4, Rivers was the only bench player who scored (5 points). Harden and Chris Paul are both future Hall of Famers, but winning in the postseason requires the supporting cast to step up. Houston’s bunch needs to do that in a closeout game at home.
In a perfect world, the Rockets come home to a raucous Toyota Center, things click on all cylinders offensively, Utah’s Jae Crowder and Ricky Rubio come back down to Earth, and Houston coasts to the Western Conference semifinals. But as Mick Jagger reminded us -- you can’t always get what you want.
The Jazz finally returned to their elite defensive status in Games 3 and 4, while Houston is unlikely to get a big night out of star center Clint Capela, who told ESPN Monday night he is dealing with two different viruses. Capela says doctors told him it will probably take another couple of days until he’s fully recovered. The 24-year-old big man was held to just 4 points on 1-6 shooting in Monday’s loss, and was a minus 20 in the defensive plus-minus.
That’s why it’s all the more important for James Harden to do what MVPs do -- be the closer. Portland’s Damian Lillard put on a clinic in closing with Tuesday’s dramatic, 50-point, 37-foot buzzer-beater performance over the Thunder. The Beard doesn’t necessarily need all of that, but the playoffs are where legacies are cemented.
Harden has turned one of the all-time great seasons in NBA history already. Now is his chance to truly prove he’s the dominant force in the league right now by putting his team on his back in a closeout game and carrying them to the next round.