SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of the second quarter, Vivint Arena was buzzing.
Jordan Clarkson was putting the finishing touches to a 20-point half, Juwan Morgan was euro stepping inside, Donovan Mitchell had scored 13 points, and the Jazz had somehow survived Houston shooting 9-of-11 from three to go into halftime with a four-point lead.
Things were looking good. Then the third quarter happened.
The energy was suddenly gone, that urgency had disappeared, and the Houston Rockets blew right by the Jazz.
Houston outscored Utah by 19 points in the third quarter leading to a 120-110 win over the Jazz Saturday at Vivint Arena.
In a game that could have major playoff implications, the Rockets came out and took it to the Jazz in the second half. James Harden had 38 points, Russell Westbrook had 34, and Houston was 20-of-48 from 3-point range.
With the win, Houston now holds the tiebreaker between the two teams — something that seems pretty important considering the two teams are tied with 36-20 records.
“We gave them one in Houston, obviously,” Westbrook said. “This was for the tiebreaker. We came in with the right mindset and got a big win. We know that we’re the only team that’s in our way, and every night we’ve got to take the challenge of being the best team in the league."
The Jazz want to consider themselves among the best in the league, too. But they have looked far from it in their first two post-All-Star break games.
Yes, the matchups have been tough, with the Jazz beginning their second half with two teams which have historically given them problems. But that doesn’t explain the lapses that the players themselves have admitted they have had. In fact, it makes those moments even more confounding.
That’s what happened in the third quarter. The Jazz’s perimeter defense went out the window — and then flew to another state. Westbrook and Harden feasted and the Jazz couldn’t keep up.
On Friday night following the loss to San Antonio, Mitchell, who had 31 points on Saturday, spoke openly about how the Jazz needed to change their approach during the stretch run. They had won games by simply outscoring teams — they couldn’t do that anymore.
“There are games where we've won off playing bad defense and good offense and we can't rely on that come this half of the season and playoffs,” he said.
One night later, the Jazz once again found themselves in a shootout. And once again, they came up short.
The Jazz were just 7-of-31 from 3-point range. With the way they defended at times, that wasn’t good enough.
“I thought we had good shooters with some good looks and we didn’t knock them down,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I think when you don’t make shots, it impacts our defense. That being said, I thought in the third quarter, we didn’t have the same energy we needed on the defensive end. We didn’t get our hands on balls and get deflections.”
It can be a frustrating experience playing the Rockets — and the Jazz know that more than most. Harden is a master at drawing contact and can leave defenders irritated and looking for the same treatment on the other end.
That’s what happened in the second half. The Jazz missed shots, the Rockets hit theirs, and the Jazz were looking to officials for some help. That help didn’t come.
“I think, individually, we need to continue to take the challenge defensively because when we are locked in one on one, it doesn’t require to help other guys and rotations don’t have to happen, and we are capable of doing that,” said Mike Conley, who had 13 points and six assists. “We have done that in a lot of games this season. Obviously, this team is a little unique the way they play and they are going to make some tough shots. But we need to continue to be aggressive with them, continue to be forceful, and just fight every possession.”
Mitchell did lead a comeback attempt in the fourth, scoring 18 of his 31 points in the final 12 minutes to help give the Jazz stay a bit connected at the end. But when Harden walked up the court and hit a deep three with 2:13 left to make it a double-digit Houston lead again, it was game over.