Utah’s defense slowed Thunder, but Rockets a whole new level

Associated Press
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HOUSTON (AP) — Utah’s tough defense excelled against almost everyone in the league this season.

The Jazz could not, however, find a way to slow down Houston’s high-powered offense.

Utah tied for first in the league in the regular season by allowing just 99.8 points per game, but the Rockets averaged 116.3 points against the Jazz in a 4-0 sweep of the season series.

Now the Jazz will get another shot at the top-seeded Rockets when they open the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday after outdoing the big three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to eliminate the Thunder in Game 6 on Friday night.

Utah had no answer for MVP front-runner James Harden in the regular season. He averaged 34.3 points against the Jazz, highlighted by a 56-point performance in a 137-110 win in November that set a career-high he has since bested.

“They’re such a unique team,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We have to compete, (that’s) the main thing. … They’re so good. They’ve been the best team in the league all year. They’ve beat us. We know how good they are.”

Despite their success against Utah, the Rockets raved about what the team has done in limiting many of the NBA’s top offenses, with Harden saying they are a “very, very, very good defensive team.”

The Jazz don’t do anything exotic. Harden said it’s simply good, fundamental basketball.

“They’ve got scrappy defenders and they funnel everything to (Rudy) Gobert,” Harden said. “A 7-foot-2 guy that’s top-3 in shot-blocking and contesting and making shots tough, so that’s pretty much it.”

Both the Rockets and the fifth-seeded Jazz are in the semifinals for the second straight year. The Rockets, who beat the Timberwolves 4-1 in the first round to advance, lost to the Spurs last season, and Utah was eliminated by Golden State.

Coach Mike D’Antoni said facing Minnesota’s defense, anchored by Karl-Anthony Towns, was a good warmup for the looks they’ll see against the Jazz and Gobert, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

But in the end, the veteran coach believes the Rockets’ success will have more to do with them than anything the Jazz do.

“We’re going to score,” he said of his team, which ranked second in scoring in the regular season. “To me it depends on us. I just think that we do what we do against anybody and we’re going to score some points if we play well.”