HOUSTON — No one on the Utah Jazz is using the word “stop” when referring to what they’ll try to do to James Harden in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday night after the Houston Rockets’ star scored 41 points in a Game 1 rout.
They’re simply searching for ways to slow him down a bit after he’s averaged almost 36 points a game in five meetings this season.
“He is a (heck) of a player so it’s going to be tough, but we feel like we can just try to make it a bit tough on him for the whole (time) he’s out there,” Utah’s Joe Ingles said.
Harden made seven 3-pointers in Game 1, leaving the Jazz focused on limiting him from long range.
“Just make him a driver,” rookie Donovan Mitchell said. “He loves getting back to that 3. They got comfortable in the first half and they went up 30. So just being able to make them uncomfortable and not let them dictate what we do on defense. Make sure we dictate what they do.”
Coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t concerned about anything that the Jazz might throw at Harden on Wednesday and believes the only thing that can keep Harden from a big game is, well, Harden.
“There’s no answer. He’s seen it all,” D’Antoni said. “Now, he might play bad and that’s because he’s human. But there’s nothing that you can conceivably come up with that can stop one of the best offensive players ever.”
Harden led the NBA in scoring in the regular season by averaging a career-high 30.4 points a game and ranks second behind LeBron James this postseason with 31 points a game.
Houston’s Trevor Ariza, a player known for his defense, has the task of guarding Mitchell in this series. He was asked what he would try if he had to guard Harden. There was a long pause before Ariza let out a loud sigh and said with a laugh: “I’d figure out a way to slow him down.”
But the veteran is happy to be playing with Harden and not against him.
“I’m glad I don’t have that problem right now,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell them what I think. I would let them try to figure it out on their own.”
The top-seeded Rockets expect to see a different team than they did in Game 1 after the Jazz had only about 36 hours between the end of Game 6 against the Thunder and the start of this series.
“I think a couple days’ rest will help them and we’ll get the best they’ve got,” D’Antoni said.
The Jazz refused to use fatigue as an excuse for their poor performance in Game 1, but they did admit that they were feeling better about this game with a little bit of rest. Mitchell said having two days to break down film and work on their game plan has also been beneficial.
Despite trailing by double digits for most of Sunday’s game, the Jazz don’t seemed daunted or discouraged entering Game 2.
“A lot of people have been hitting me up saying: “Try to keep your head up. It’s only Game 1,’” Mitchell said. “And my head was never down. I don’t think any of our heads were ever down. It’s just one game out of a long series ... I think being down 0-1 last series and seeing how we came back and responded definitely gives you a sense of more hope than if this would have been the opening round.”
The Jazz will try and even the series without starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who sat out Game 1 and is out indefinitely with a strained left hamstring. The Rockets believe Rubio’s absence changed things for Mitchell. He scored a playoff-high 38 points in Game 6 to lead Utah to the win before scoring 21, which were his fewest of the postseason, on Sunday.
“It makes Donovan handle the ball more than they would like,” Ariza said of Rubio’s injury. “He’s their dominant scorer at this point so when he has to handle the ball and get everybody involved in the game it kind of takes away from him scoring the ball all the time or being aggressive all the time.”