SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Team are trying to get creative in guarding the Houston Rockets.
Russell Westbrook doesn’t think the ploys are effective.
James Harden shrugged off traps to score 38 points, Westbrook faced two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and still had 34 and the Rockets beat the Utah Jazz 120-110 on Saturday night.
“I don’t know if it’s working. I get whatever I want. I get to the basket. I shoot. I drive and kick. The pace and speed you can’t scout for,” Westbrook said.
Harden (13 for 23, 6 3-pointers) and Westbrook (14 for 26) were efficient all night and the Rockets rode a big third quarter to their third straight win.
“It obviously didn’t work,” Harden said when asked about putting the 7-foot-1 Gobert on the 6-3 Westbrook.
Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore each scored 12 off the bench for Houston.
Donovan Mitchell scored 31 and Jordan Clarkson had 22 for the Jazz, who cut the Rockets’ lead to seven in the fourth quarter a couple times but could never get closer.
The Rockets made the Jazz pay when they occasionally double-teamed Harden and couldn’t rotate fast enough to the perimeter shooters. After a season high-tying 25 3-pointers in their last outing against Golden State, the Rockets made 20 of 48 from beyond the arc.
“We have two guys, even more than two guys, that are able to put pressure on the rim. Teams are going to come and help and then our shooters have open shots,” Harden said.
The Rockets made their move in the third quarter when they outscored the Jazz 38-19.
“When we don’t make shots, it really impacts our defense. That 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, we didn’t get deflections, and we fouled just once which tells you a little about our aggressiveness,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.
Westbrook capped a 14-2 run with a jumper and Houston led 100-85 entering the final period.
“It’s cash money when they guard like that,” Westbrook said.
The Rockets made eight of their first nine 3-point attempts to take an early eight-point lead.
Taking advantage of Houston’s lack of rim protection, Clarkson scored 20 points in the first half to help the Jazz recover and move in front.
The Jazz played zone defense at times along with some non-traditional defensive matchups against the small-ball Rockets.
“Every game has been different so we just need to figure out how they are going to guard us and attack it. If they trap me, we are going to get open 3s. If they play us regular, we’ll run our offense and still get it,” Harden said.
If Harden and Westbrook are rolling, unique strategies don’t seem to matter.
“We got two of the best 1-on-1 players in the world. What are you going to do?” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.
The Jazz lost to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night and could hardly afford another slip-up on the second half of their back-to-back as they jockey with the Rockets for playoff position in the last third of the season.
Houston and Utah now both have records of 36-20 but the Rockets claimed the season series, 2-1.
‘D’ WINS GAMES
All the Rockets mentioned improved defense, especially in the third quarter, as the key to the win. The Rockets held the Jazz to 6-for-19 shooting in the third quarter and forced five turnovers.
“We took the challenge better. They were coming at us and we weren’t surprised but we weren’t really into them and we didn’t guard as well as we could (in the second period). That’s the mark of an experienced and veteran that we just came out and manned up,” D’Antoni said.
“That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to guard. If we guard at a high level like we’ve been doing, the sky’s the limit for us,” Harden said.
Rockets: Gordon, who scored 50 against Utah on Jan. 27, returned from a three-game absence with a leg bruise. … The Rockets’ 20 3-pointers gave them a 60-21 edge on shots from long range. … Westbrook demonstratively demanded a replay on a foul by Bojan Bogdanovic early in the fourth quarter. After review, the elbow nudge was determined to be a common foul.
Jazz: Rookie forward Juwan Morgan, who had never played more than seven minutes in a game, played 13 minutes against the small-ball Rockets and had career highs of four points and five rebounds. … Utah outscored Houston 64-36 in the paint. … Mike Conley had 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists after sitting out for rest against the Spurs.
Rockets: Host New York on Monday night.
Jazz: Host Phoenix on Monday night.