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Rockets remind us all why they are serious contenders

James Harden Houston Rockets Utah Game 3

Houston Rockets

Rockets remind us all why they are serious contenders

After the Game 2 disappointment that brought back old questions, the Houston Rockets showed us how this team is different

In the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Utah Jazz got beat up in the first game only to steal a road win in Game 2, coming home to Salt Lake City to take big wins in the next two to seize a commanding lead in their series.

Donovan Mitchell and company learned pretty early on Friday night that the Houston Rockets are not the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After a shocking loss in Game 2 that gave the Utah Jazz homecourt advantage in the series and brought questions about their playoff past back to the surface, the Rockets rebounded in a big way for Game 3, building a lead as hefty as 38 points and cruising to a 113-92 victory in front of a loud, sellout crowd that by halftime was likely wishing it was anywhere but there.

Just about everything that went wrong for the Rockets in Game 2 went right in Game 3.

The Rockets have been very good defensively this season, but considering the stakes and the environment, this was the best defense they’ve played all season. They were laser-focused from the tip, locking down the rook and forcing Joe Ingles into turnovers after his Larry Bird impersonation on Wednesday. Kudos go to all the Rockets because this was truly a team effort, but Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela set the tone in a big way early on.

This game, highlighted by that crushing defense and offensive versatility, illustrated perfectly how the Rockets are a much more well-rounded team than they were this time last season.

What the Rockets didn’t have in 2016-17 – the mid-range game

The odd thing here is: The Rockets did not shoot well in Game 3. They were only 11-36 (30.6%) from downtown, which isn’t much better than their output in Game 2. But it was clear they strayed from their normal philosophy and took what was given to them.

It was almost surgical how the Rockets picked apart the highly-respected Jazz defense with the mid-range game. Watch as Paul or Gordon find the middle ground, with Rudy Gobert sagging, and bury the mid-range shot.

These are still not the ideal shots that the Rockets want, but if it’s a threat, if the Rockets can turn to this consistently when necessary, it’s going to make it that much more difficult for opposing defenses to shut down the threes or paint points.

James Harden’s defense was not good — it was great

Let’s not go ‘national media’ here and ignore James Harden’s defense. He was making big stops in the first quarter as the Rockets proceeded to pull away early.

Harden has been a solid defensive player for some time now. Lazy narratives still mock his defense but it’s just not true any more. He knows where to be, how the scheme works and how to funnel players to the right spots. He is solid at switching and is damn good at guarding the post, where he can use his strength to body up bigger players and doesn’t have to deal with blazing fast gnats. Harden will still experience problems in transition on occasion and he’s not a great perimeter defender against quick guards, but he’s been very good inside a defensive scheme that was ranked sixth overall this season.

That’s what made what he did Friday night so impressive. Harden kept perimeter players from driving past him, especially Ingles. He consistently kept a body on Ingles drives, halting the penetration that the Jazz used consistently in Game 2 and the second half of Game 1.

Some players say they’re going to “shut that sh*t off” and then go out and get torched. Others say nothing and then go out and actually do it.

Clint Capela is going to be filthy rich this summer

‘Foul-Machine Capela’ and ‘Easily-Winded Capela’ appear to be two past models of the young center that are now officially retired. He is blooming in these playoffs. Capela’s rim protection in Game 3 was on another level — 11 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocks, two steals and numerous altered shots. His straight-up stuffs of Derrick Favors and Gobert in the first half were truly worthy of the call that ESPN made: “It’s his paint and nobody’s allowed!”

He’s now averaging 16.0 points on over 61% shooting, 10.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.3 steals in the series.

Consider that he has gone up against an All-Star in Karl-Anthony Towns and now the Defensive Player of the Year in Gobert and he has outshined both by miles. Gobert is a game-changer that completely controlled the paint against the Thunder and he has been totally marginalized in this series, in no small part because of Capela.

Clint has been the best center in this series. Period. Some team is going to sign him to a ridiculous offer sheet and the Rockets are going to have to pony up this summer to keep him.

Ryan Anderson only played garbage time

This is a player who averaged nearly 30 minutes a night for the first 50 games this season, starting virtually every game, and the Rockets were 37-13. Now he’s practically unplayable? You take a deep breath and realize you have an issue. I don’t know how you overcome this, but if Anderson is a zero against the Timberwolves and the Jazz, how can he be of use to you at all? He still has two years and ~$40 million remaining on his deal.

It’s going to cost the Rockets a fortune to keep Capela this summer. It’s also going to cost them a fortune to unload Anderson.

Hopefully I’m overreacting to one game, but I suspect that he’s now just an adjustment piece, a guy D’Antoni may turn to in a series when things have become too predictable.

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Armed with a bizarre fascination for Mario Elie and a deep love of the Houston Rockets, Dave Hardisty started ClutchFans in 1996 under the pen name “Clutch”.

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