Minutes after the Houston Rockets eliminated the Utah Jazz to advance to the Western Conference semifinals for the third straight season they were already looking ahead to the possibility of getting another shot at the Golden State Warriors.
“That’s what I want,” center Clint Capela said. “I want to face them.”
Veteran Chris Paul slightly scolded the 24-year-old for acknowledging that this is the matchup Houston has been looking forward to all season.
“That’s going to be all over (the internet),” Paul said, shaking his head.
But Paul couldn’t deny that the Rockets are well aware that the Warriors have been the biggest roadblock to them vying for their first title in more than 20 years.
“Real talk, in order to get to where you want to get to, you have to go through them,” he said. “They’re the reigning champs. They’ve been running the West for five years straight now.”
But the Rockets will have to wait to see if they’ll get that shot at the Warriors after they failed to close out their series with the Clippers on Wednesday night, as Los Angeles won 129-121 to force Game 6.
Houston has been eliminated by the Warriors in the postseason in three of the last four seasons, including twice in the Western Conference finals. The Rockets took a 3-2 lead over Golden State in the conference finals last year before dropping the final two games with Paul out with a hamstring injury.
“If they come out of it, it’s going to be a great series,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We said all year: ‘Let’s run it back.’ Well, OK. I guess we’re going to run it back.”
Houston took a 3-0 lead in their first-round series against the Jazz before missing all 13 of their 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter of a Game 4 loss in Utah. The Rockets weren’t particularly sharp on offense in their 100-93 win that closed out the series on Wednesday night, but they were proud of their defense.
Ricky Rubio cut Houston’s lead to 94-93 on a jump shot with about a minute left. Tucker missed two free throws, but grabbed a loose ball seconds later and was fouled again. This time he made both shots to make it 96-93.
James Harden blocked a shot by Ruby Gobert on Utah’s next possession and he made two free throws to extend the lead to 98-93 with 38 seconds left.
Donovan Mitchell missed a 3-pointer after that and Paul added two more free throws to secure the victory.
“We missed some easy shots, turned the ball over and they got going,” P.J. Tucker said. “But in the second half, we finally got stops to get the win.”
If the Rockets hope to finally reach the NBA Finals this season, they know that they’ll have to continue to play good defense.
“That’s what’s going to get us to our goal,” Harden said. “Obviously the shot making is extra, that’s a bonus. But if we’re guarding like we’ve been guarding and knocking down our shots, it’s going to be pretty tough.”
Harden averaged 27.8 points in the first round, but he struggled at times to get going offensively. His worst game of the series came in Game 3 when Houston won despite him missing his first 15 shots to set an NBA record for most misses to start a playoff game.
D’Antoni brushed off a question about if he had any concern about Harden’s efficiency after he led the team with 26 points, despite starting his night 1 for 11.
“He’s so good that when he’s normal everybody’s like what’s wrong,” D’Antoni said. “He’s going to hit his stride. I don’t care what they do, he’ll figure it out … he could go 0 for 30 10 days in a row and it won’t matter. He still is who he is.”