HOUSTON —The Jazz looked awfully tired of playing James Harden.
Dating back to last year’s playoff, Utah has played the Harden-led Rockets eight times over the last 36 games. That’s a lot of drives, a lot of trickery, a lot of foul calls. And more than a few step-back jumpers.
The latest such step-back ended up clinching Houston’s 102-97 win over the Jazz on Monday night at the Toyota Center.
With 13.3 seconds left, Harden hit a deep setback 3-pointer for the game’s final points. Jae Crowder and Donovan Mitchell both missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds. Utah dropped to 14-17 on the season.
But it wasn’t that shot that has made Harden so annoying to play against. It’s the type of play that happened on the possession before. Harden took a dribble inside the 3-point line and then did a double step-back (the four-step travel went uncalled) and baited Ricky Rubio into a foul.
It was a clear foul. It was a clearer travel. Harden made two of the three free throws to make it a two-possession game.
"I didn't see it live, I saw that video. I mean, that's a new move. I haven't seen it before," Rudy Gobert said.
That’s because it’s not legal, Rudy.
After what had happened for much of the game, the Jazz hardly issued a complaint about the travel. Maybe most didn’t see it, like Gobert, or maybe they had just grown used to it up to that point.
Harden scored 47 points on Monday and made 15 of 16 free throws. The third quarter featured Harden’s personal parade to the line.
After the Jazz erased a 13-point halftime deficit to take a one-point lead, Harden fueled a run to push the Rockets back up 10 entering the fourth quarter. Harden is the best in the league at creating contact. He created it on Monday and was awarded for it.
It was the same tricks that the Jazz have grown used to. He hooked Dante Exum’s arms on drives. He bowled into a non-set Rudy Gobert. He baited the official to make call after call. It wasn’t the most beautiful display of basketball, but it was effective. It halted the Jazz’s momentum and allowed Houston to build back up a lead.
“What do you want me to say?,” Harden told ESPN. “Tell on myself?”
Harden’s antics overshadowed a strong defensive night from the Jazz.
Utah looked like it was well on its way to suffering another blowout in a season that has been oddly full of them. The Jazz struggled to hit shots in the first half — and that might be understating it. Utah hit on 4-for-20 from 3-point range in the opening two quarters and was a horrible 6-for-16 on shots at the rim.
But Rudy Gobert and the Jazz defense was great for large portions of the game.
“I think collectively we did a good job,” Royce O’Neale said.
Houston was only 37.2 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from the 3-point line. That strong defensive effort kept the Jazz alive even with a less-than-stellar offensive night. Mitchell led the Jazz with 23 points and Gobert had 18 points and 13 rebounds on the night. But it was another night of missed open shots. Utah was just 39 percent from the field and trailed by as many as 18 points in the game.
But the Jazz came back in the third. And they did it again in the fourth.
With 1:59 remaining, Gobert tipped the ball in to tie the game at 94.
Then Harden took over — scoring the final eight Houston points. Some were controversial, some weren’t.
All were pretty annoying for the Jazz.