SALT LAKE CITY -- Joe Ingles hit a 3-pointer on the Utah Jazz's opening possession, and the roof of Vivint Smart Home Arena did a pump fake. The noise was already hitting a level probably medically unsafe for the 19,911 in attendance, and it was only the beginning of what was set to be a raucous, intense night.
Then Clint Capela answered with a smooth lefty hook, Trevor Ariza banged home a right corner 3 and PJ Tucker splashed one from the opposite corner a few seconds later. Quin Snyder sprinted off the Utah's bench to call timeout, less than 90 seconds into the game. He could already see it coming. The crowd sat down in a collective murmur. The Jazz probably did, too.
"We needed to be kind of shaken a little bit," Snyder said. "You could just tell there wasn't the urgency we needed. And that was reflected in those two shots."
The timeout was, well, unsuccessful. It was an onslaught, full stop, with the Houston Rockets hitting the Jazz with wave after wave of runs in a 113-92 Game 3 win to take a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series. Houston assisted on nine of its first 13 buckets, and spread around a clinical 48 minutes, their largest lead hitting 38 points. The offense was simple and sharp; the defense was suffocating. The Jazz were helpless against the balance of the Rockets.
"No guarantees," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said pregame, "but I think they got our attention and smacked us good [in Game 2]."
If Game 2 was a wake-up call, consider the Rockets woke.
"They raised their level, is what happened," Snyder said. "We weren't able to get some of the things that we got. I think we maybe thought that it was a little easier than it was."
There were a few brief signs of life in the first half, with the home crowd trying its hardest to put a jolt into the Jazz. A snappy 9-0 run keyed by Royce O'Neale cut Houston's lead to 15 -- 15! -- with 6:01 left in the second quarter, and the arena was vibrating again with noise.
But these Rockets are ruthless. Any minor push by the Jazz was met with a full shoulder charge, barraging them with 3s and downhill rim attacks. A Rudy Gobert dunk the deficit to 18, and the crowd roared -- only for the Rockets to follow with a 14-2 run, taking a 30-point lead into halftime. Quite frankly, it was just mean.
"We made a lot of adjustments," D'Antoni said with a laugh. "We just adjusted our attitude, spirit and energy."
Gordon muscles for reverse layup
Eric Gordon pushes the tempo and tacks on two more points as the Rockets take a huge lead early.
What's strange, is there was really no standout for the Rockets. James Harden was standard (25 points on 8-of-17 shooting, plus 12 assists and only one turnover), Chris Paul was fine (15-7-6, 6-of-17 from the field), and while Eric Gordon had 25 off the bench on 8-of-13 field goals, it was more Capela's interior defensive dominance that made the most noticeable impact. Especially for Mitchell, who, on a night after the Sixers' Ben Simmons finished with one point, responded with 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
It's overdue for Mitchell to have a rookie playoff game, as his excellence has been remarkable as he has shouldered more and more responsibility for Utah. But the coincidence of it coming a night after Simmons is some kind of weird cosmic rookie equilibrium. The Rockets made a clever pick-and-roll adjustment to counter Utah's slipping move from Game 2, and once the early pass wasn't there for Mitchell he struggled attacking the paint. Mitchell took a couple bad early shots, and never got any kind of rhythm. In his previous two games against the Rockets, he was shooting just 10-of-37.
"I gotta pass the ball," Mitchell said. "Taking terrible shots. I made a few better passes in the second half, but just can't shoot terrible shots. That's what leads to their transition. I don't know how many shots I missed, but all the shots I missed were terrible shots. They weren't good looks and I can't do that."
The Rockets dominated Game 1 with an early run, and made it a point of emphasis after the game about letting down their guard a bit to allow the Jazz some momentum. The Rockets had the look of complacency in Game 2, as the Jazz played with emotion, toughness and intensity. It's almost like they snuck up on Houston. Harden said it was a "learning experience."
There wasn't much fretting for the Rockets after Wednesday's game, with Harden and Paul walking out of their postgame podium media conference bumping shoulders and laughing. They looked wholly unconcerned, even with a trip ahead to Salt Lake City with a rabid crowd waiting.
It set the stage for an interesting Game 3, with plenty of questions for the Rockets to answer. It didn't take long for them to do it.