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Utah Jazz find Game 2 success with Dante Exum defending James Harden

SALT LAKE CITY — Glancing at the final box score, it’s hard to imagine anyone slowing down James Harden with the numbers he put up in Game 2 of the Houston Rockets-Utah Jazz series.

The MVP frontrunner followed his 41-point outburst in Game 1 with 32 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds during Wednesday’s 116-108 home loss to the Jazz.

However, Harden went 9 of 22 from the field and 2 for 10 from 3 as the Rockets trailed by as many as 19.

Although his numbers looked terrific on paper, the league’s leading scorer had to work to hit those marks, with a plethora of Jazz defenders trying to contain him.

Dante Exum was the primary defender, along with Royce O’Neale and Donovan Mitchell at times. While guarding him on 22 possessions, Harden scored twice with a single assist and a turnover while going 0 for 7 versus Exum.

Against O’Neale, Harden scored nine points on 3-for-7 shooting with two assists.

Utah’s game plan was to contest his shots with length and guarding him closer on the perimeter. Mitchell was also forcing the left-handed scorer to use his right hand, but Exum found the most success.

“I think Dante (Exum) has some size and some length and we’ve had confidence in Dante taking difficult matchups,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “No one’s congratulating each other on what happened for us defensively. I think we need to be better.

“Like I said, he’s not a player that any one guy can guard,” he continued. “The fact that Dante can come in and give us some minutes and compete and battle is a big thing.”

Exum finished with nine points, four rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes to help the Jazz’s bench outscore Houston’s, 41-22. He also ended the game with a thunderous one-handed jam in the final minute to put the exclamation point on the victory for Utah.

Game planning for Harden was no easy task, especially after Game 1 when he found great success in isolation situations near the top of the key. Harden scored 20 of his 41 points against O’Neale in the series opener with Exum checking him on only four possessions in his 15 minutes of action.

In the regular season, Houston went 4-0 against Utah with Harden averaging 34.3 points per game, 6.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds on 55.4 percent shooting. He exploded for 56 points and 13 assists during a 137-110 Nov. 5 win against the Jazz, but the lineup has vastly improved since then.

“It’s hard; you can’t put any one guy and hang that on one player and I think we’ve said just try to make him work,” Snyder said. “He had 21 in the first half, so he’s still going to be able to be efficient and score.”

Game 3 of the Jazz-Rockets Western Conference semifinals is set for 8:30 p.m. Friday night at Vivint Arena with the City Edition uniform and court returning. Harden is expecting a physical challenge, but feels he can adapt.

“We expected that; it’s the postseason,” Harden said. “I just got to do a better job of going down and attacking. That’s it. It’s pretty simple.”