HOUSTON — Ricky Rubio was deep behind the 3-point line when he received a pass with just two seconds left in the third quarter. He took one dribble — his left — and let a running 3-pointer fly.
It went in; of course, it did. On that night, it seemed just about everything did.
It was Game 3 of last year’s first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder — the night Rubio etched himself into Jazz playoff lore with a 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double.
The memory of him controlling that contest and motioning to the raucous Utah crowd as it chanted his name is why there’s hope that he can be a difference maker this season against Houston.
Rubio averaged 20.3 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in Utah’s first three wins against Oklahoma City before getting hurt early in Game 6 — an injury that forced him to miss the entire second-round matchup with the Rockets.
“If you look at what he did against OKC last year,” Donovan Mitchell said. “That was his first playoff series, but look at the impact that he had. We missed him last year.”
Rubio, who has been dealing with a right quad contusion, is probable for Sunday’s series-opener and is expected to play. And after missing the series last year, Rubio is excited to see the Rockets back on the schedule.
“Seems like it was meant to be,” Rubio said. “I’m happy. It’s a tough matchup. But after watching from the outside, being able to be on the court this year is going to be much better.”
And the Jazz are hopeful it will lead to a much better result.
Rubio will likely be the primary defender of James Harden — something he has had success doing in the past. In a Jazz win last October over the Rockets, Rubio guarded Harden for 29 possessions, according to NBA.com, and held him to just seven points on 30 percent shooting while forcing four turnovers.
On Dec. 6, Rubio held Harden to nine points on 26 possessions. And on Dec. 17, Harden scored 13 points on 41 possessions against Rubio.
Mitchell said that it took him to around Game 5 last year to fully get comfortable making reads and plays against the Rockets as the primary ball-handler. And while Mitchell has improved in that regard over the course of this season, it’ll help him and the Jazz for the second-year guard not to have to be on-ball at all times.
“This year, he’s playing on a different level,” Mitchell said of Rubio, “finding guys, getting into the paint, finding his own shots, making lob passes that last year I wasn’t able to make in that series because I hadn’t been comfortable with those decisions.”
But when Rubio thinks back at last year, he doesn’t think of Mitchell struggling a bit or how the Jazz dropped both games at home by double-digits. He recalls the fight they had and the pride he felt to be a part of their team.
“It was really proud for me watching how they battled and what they went through and how they stuck with it as a team,” Rubio said. “It was really a proud moment as a team. Of course, as a teammate, you want to play but at the same time I was watching from the outside and was like, ‘(Dang), my teammates are tough.’ It was fun to watch.”
But it’ll probably be more fun to play.