HOUSTON — After the confetti rained in the Toyota Center, and after all the hugs were exchanged between players and fans exited the building, Houston Rockets MVP James Harden stepped up to the podium to address the media.
Even after the Rockets closed out a five-game Western Conference semifinals series 4-1 against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, May 8, he noticed the bigger picture for the opposition.
“Unbelievable,” Harden said of Utah. “Especially when nobody expected them to be in the situation they’re in right now. The sky is the limit for them.
“Obviously, they’ve got a great new future with Donovan (Mitchell) and some great pieces to go around them, and obviously coach (Quin) Snyder is a really good coach, so keep building and we’ll see what happens.”
Well, on Wednesday night, the Jazz returned to that same site for the first time of the 2018-19 campaign, riding a two-game losing streak, to snap it and beat the Rockets, 100-89.
Jazz star Donovan Mitchell went off for a season-high 38 points, seven assists and five rebounds on 14-for-25 shooting after connecting at a 34.4 percent clip in his first three games.
The Jazz are now 2-2 and the sophomore guard has seemingly overcome that early frustration with seven assists and five rebounds to add to his point total.
“110 percent to be honest,” Mitchell said of his early frustration. “Not so much from a scoring aspect, but just because I wasn’t making the plays that I needed to make whether it was finding the open man like I did tonight.
“The game against Golden State where Ricky's (Rubio) wide open in the corner, I didn’t hit him, same thing against Memphis, just kind of pressing and that was what I was more frustrated about,” he added. “Tonight, I think my biggest thing was trying to make the right reads and the reads were at the rim or for open passes.”
To Houston’s credit, they were playing without starting point guard Chris Paul, while serving the last of his two-game suspension following an altercation with Los Angeles Lakers floor general Rajon Rondo.
Houston forward James Ennis (hamstring), Brandon Knight (knee), Marquese Chriss (left ankle sprain), Nene (calf) and Zhou Qi (knee) were also sidelined with injuries.
Harden ended with 29 points, seven assists and five rebounds but left at 5:19 in the fourth quarter with tightness in his hamstring. The reigning MVP also made seven turnovers as the Jazz forced the Rockets to shoot just 40.2 percent from the field, 27.5 percent from beyond the arc and 57.1 percent at the free throw line.
“No, not yet. Not with Chris (Paul) in street clothes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of potential takeaways from the 1-3 start. “We’ve got to grind and get as many wins as we can. It doesn’t happen overnight. Yeah, everyone sees the progress but you’ve kind of got to keep working at it, keep talking about it, keep showing film and keep incorporating our mentality and you’ve got to get there.”
Utah went up by as many as 16 in the third quarter after leading 52-44 at the half.
Jazz guards Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum and Rubio forced Harden to work for his 14 first-half points, with six turnovers in the 24 minutes.
Rockets big man Clint Capela helped Houston rally back with a dunk at 5:55 in the fourth to cut the lead to 84-79, but the Jazz closed the game on a 16-10 run to seal the victory.
In addition to Mitchell’s big night, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors both notched franchise milestones.
With 12 points, 13 boards and three blocks, Gobert logged his 138th career double-double which is the fifth most in team history.
Favors also moved into ninth place in all-time Jazz rebounds with 3,719 after posting eight points and eight boards with two blocks against Houston. Carmelo Anthony added 22 points and seven rebounds off the bench in 38 minutes for the Rockets.
The Jazz will travel to New Orleans next to face the Pelicans on Saturday, Oct. 27.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder was pleased with the way Mitchell led the team in assists as well as points and hopes he can continue it.
“I think he’s a catalyst for us offensively and the guys know that,” Snyder said. “When we can play through him, and he’s being aggressive, and not just for his shot, which is good but he’s a guy that can make plays for others as well. You saw that tonight, he’s going to have another bad game this year, but he’s going to have a lot more good ones.
“He’s going to get better throughout the course of the year and we’re not going to judge him by a good game or a bad game,” he added. “We just want to keep seeing him get better and that’s what he’s focusing on, too.”