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Rockets need more than James Harden show vs. Spurs

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HOUSTON (AP) — As Houston Rockets guard James Harden barreled through the San Antonio defense on Friday night en route to 30 second-half points, what gradually became clear was the Spurs’ willingness to let Harden thrive as long as his teammates did not.

Plenty of the postgame dialogue celebrated the Spurs’ height advantage and how they parlayed it into a 103-92 victory over Houston in Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal series. The adjustment that proved more decisive was San Antonio ceding scoring opportunities to Harden while muting the Rockets’ other perimeter threats.

Harden scored 56.6 percent of Houston’s second-half points, doing so with an impressive 75.0 effective field goal percentage. But Harden recorded two assists following the intermission and had just one teammate reach double figures in scoring after halftime. Center Clint Capela had 10 of his 12 points after the break.

Houston aims to square the series at 2-2 in Game 4 on Sunday night at Toyota Center.

After averaging a league-leading 11.2 assists during the regular season and 12 in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio, Harden produced five assists in Game 3. Houston fell to 1-5 in the six games that Harden recorded six or fewer assists this season.

“It’s a battle I’ve been trying to figure out all year long, to find a happy medium between scoring the basketball and facilitating,” said Harden, who finished with 43 points. “I think I just go with basketball instincts. If I have a shot be aggressive and shoot it. If not, get off the ball and have someone else make a play.”

The Rockets exploited foes based on decisions Harden makes with the ball, and when he is able to score and facilitate, their offense is often overwhelming. Harden recorded 20 points and 14 assists in the series opener, needing just 13 shots to orchestrate an offense that produced a 39-point lead and a 126-99 win.

Houston finished 19-10 when Harden produced 30-plus points and 10-plus assists during the regular season. Preventing him from striking that balance, even while running the risk of Harden exploding, renders the Rockets’ offense less frightful. Excluding Harden, Houston went 0 for 8 on second-half 3-pointers.

“It’s a challenge,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’ve got great shooters, good athletes, good scheme, and just as anyone else would do we’re just trying to do our best to get out to those shooters. James does a great job making you think about what you have to do to him, how much you can help off other people. It’s enough to drive you crazy but you just do your best. That’s why people score.”

The Spurs will again be without point guard Tony Parker in Game 4 after he was lost for the season with a quadriceps injury in Game 2. Rookie Dejounte Murray will again start with Patty Mills coming in off the bench.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge exploded for 26 points in Game 2 after totaling just 19 over the first two games. Star small forward Kawhi Leonard had another strong game with 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

What proved crucial for San Antonio was that while Harden scored at will in the second half, so too did the Spurs. After mustering only 43 points prior to the intermission, San Antonio scored 60 in the second half with a 63.9 effective field goal percentage.

While there was no correlation between Harden finding his offensive rhythm and the Rockets’ defensive collapse, their shortcoming on that end of the court left them acknowledging one more thing that needs to change Sunday night.

“They played harder than we did in the second half. We can’t allow that, especially at home,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. “We’ve got to do a better job of matching their physicality and playing harder.”

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.