HOUSTON (AP) — Ask James Harden what Eric Gordon means to the Houston Rockets and the Beard answers immediately.
“Everything,” he said.
While much of the focus in Houston’s first-round series with the Utah Jazz will be on Harden and Chris Paul, Gordon might be the X-factor that could key the Rockets to a win in this series.
These team are meeting in the postseason for the second straight year after Houston eliminated Utah in five games in the second round last year to reach the Western Conference finals for the second time in four years. Game 1 is Sunday night in Houston.
Gordon enters his fourth postseason after averaging 16.2 points a game in the regular season. The 3-point specialist tied his career high three times this season by sinking eight in a game. He can be a streaky scorer, but when he’s on the Rockets are hard to beat. Houston has won 11 of their last 12 games where he’s scored 20 points or more.
Coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the 30-year-old and had this to say when asked if the Rockets will win the series if Gordon has big games.
“I don’t want to go too far out on a limb but, yes,” he said.
It wasn’t just D’Antoni and Harden who stressed Gordon’s value to the team. Everybody chimed in to talk about what he means to the Rockets as they chase their first title since winning back-to-back championships in 1994-95.
“EG is one of the most important guys on our team,” Paul said. “Anybody in our locker room will tell you in a heartbeat — except for EG.”
That, the Rockets say, is one of the things that makes Gordon so unique. He’s such a key component of the team, but he’s so quiet and unassuming, and does pretty much everything to stay out of the spotlight, that you’d never know it.
“I’ve been around some low-key teammates but Gordy just has no emotion,” Paul said. “He just doesn’t and that’s who he is.”
The normally stone-faced Gordon did crack a smile when told of Paul’s description of his personality. But he says he comes from a family that isn’t “overly expressive” and even if he were to score 60 points he’d behave just the same.
“I’ve always been like that,” he said. “I’m always looking forward to the next play. If I make … two or three 3s in a row it’s all about making sure I make that next one. I’m always looking forward to the next play.”
While the focus on Gordon’s game is his 3-point shooting, he also plays a big role for the Rockets on defense. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gordon is an aggressive and versatile defender who can match up with guards as well as big men.
And while the Rockets might joke that he doesn’t have a pulse because he never gets excited or upset, they know that he doesn’t have to be overly emotional to be a factor in their playoff run.
“He doesn’t talk a lot but he plays big though,” P.J. Tucker said. “And that’s all that matters.”
Some things to know as the Rockets start their seventh straight playoff appearance against the Jazz, who are in the postseason for the third year in a row.
Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio, who averaged 12.7 points and 6.1 assists in the regular season, is expected to be ready for the series despite missing four of the last five games of the regular season with a quadriceps injury. Rubio didn’t play against Houston in the playoffs last season after injuring his hamstring in a first-round series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets know his presence makes the Jazz much better and stressed the importance of keeping him from driving into the lane to make plays.
Coach Quin Snyder is looking for Rubio and star second-year player Donovan Mitchell to take their games to another level as the postseason begins.
“Those two guys, the best players got to play well,” he said. “I think they’ve gotten better throughout the season and they’re better players than they were last year, but we’ve got to play that way.”
The Rockets added three important pieces after the season began in Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert, which helped them stay on track when injuries to Paul and center Clint Capela left them thin. D’Antoni was asked how important the addition of these players was to the team.
“It saved our year,” he said. “We couldn’t play with rookies or G-league guys when we’re teetering to go off the cliff. We had no reinforcements and we were able to bring those three guys in and they saved our year to put us in this position where we have a real legitimate shot at winning.”
Capela returned to practice on Saturday after missing two days of workouts while recovering from an upper respiratory infection. He said he still wasn’t feeling great but hopes that he’s better by Sunday night.
“It’s tough when you are trying to get ready, you can’t really sleep, coughing a lot,” he said. “Medicine hasn’t really been helpful so far. I’m going to keep fighting through.”
Utah center Rudy Gobert took a lot of criticism for not playing particularly well in the series against Houston last season. The 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year averaged 12.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in the series, but some felt that he was outplayed by Capela, whom he has mentored.
Gobert was not interested in discussing the idea that he underperformed in the series last season as they prepared for the Rockets again.
“People are going to say whatever they want,” he said. “Most people that watch the games don’t really have the knowledge to see what’s really going on. It’s all about us going out there and trying to do what we do.”
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