SALT LAKE CITY (AP)—The Utah Jazz shot poorly again and rushed on offense a few times, yet coach Jerry Sloan was about as tickled as he gets.
Utah’s defense was good enough to overcome any offensive struggles, and the Jazz beat Houston 81-67 Thursday night to cut the Rockets’ lead to 2-1 in their playoff series.
The Jazz held the Rockets without a field goal for 10 minutes in the second half and didn’t allow Houston’s reserves to score a single point. Yao Ming scored 26 and Tracy McGrady had 24 points for Houston, but only two other Rockets scored.
If Yao and McGrady combine for just 50 points, it’s not a bad night for the defense, especially when the rest of the team scored only 17 more.
“I don’t think you’re going to stop those guys,” Sloan said. “I thought we tried harder and that’s all you can do.”
The Rockets set a team record for lowest point total in a playoff game, three fewer than they scored against the Jazz in an 84-70 loss on May 3, 1998.
The stifling defense made up for another marginal night on offense. Utah was 33-for-85 from the field—2-for-15 on 3-pointers—but had 15 offensive rebounds to Houston’s nine and forced the Rockets into 19 turnovers.
And the Jazz were finally able to crack the Rockets’ defense inside, outscoring Houston 40-10 in the paint.
“It’s all about energy and I think we had it tonight,” said Utah’s Matt Harpring, who had 13 points to lead the Jazz reserves. “When we’re good we get in the paint. We shoot free throws and we rebound. When we have those three things going for us, we’re a tough team to beat.”
Carlos Boozer had 22 points and 12 rebounds and Mehmet Okur had four blocks and four steals, blanketing Yao all night with much more physical defense than Utah usually gets from its second-leading scorer.
“It was a great defensive night for us. Memo stepped up a lot,” Utah’s Deron Williams said. “I think defense won the game for us tonight.”
Williams added 11 points and eight assists, and rookie reserve Paul Millsap scored nine points.
Game 4 is set for Saturday night.
“They were the mentally tougher team,” Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “They got up into us good. That’s what they do. They’re a very good team and they responded like a good team would.”
Shane Battier scored 11 and Rafter Alston had six points for Houston. They were the only other Rockets besides Yao and McGrady to score.
The Rockets won the first two games of the series at home, but were sloppy on the road during the first playoff game in Utah since 2003. Houston had 19 turnovers to Utah’s 11 and was just 21-for-64 from the floor (32.8 percent).
“It was sloppy,” McGrady said. “Our offense was terrible. We did a fairly good job on the defensive end, but offensively we were out of sync.”
The Rockets had another big advantage from the free throw line, but it wasn’t nearly enough because they were outplayed everywhere else. Utah’s reserves outscored Houston’s 33-0 and outrebounded the Rockets’ reserves 18-6.
Gordan Giricek had 10 points for Utah, which last won a playoff game on April 26, 2003—exactly four years before.
Yao, Houston’s 7-foot-6 All-Star, scored 14 points from the line and was flustered all night, even flailing a backhand at Okur in a scramble for a loose ball in the first half. It was one of many times the Rockets lost their cool.
“We didn’t have any energy on the court,” Yao said. “They made it hard to score.”
The Rockets didn’t have a field goal from Battier’s 3-pointer with 5:26 left in the third until McGrady hit from 19 feet out with 7:26 left in the game. The Rockets missed shot after shot and were outplayed by the Jazz for nearly every rebound during the 10-minute stretch.
Juwan Howard appeared like he was going to end Houston’s scoring drought when he broke away for a layup. Okur—who is not the fastest member of the Jazz — got back in time to block it. Howard felt he was fouled and remained seated below the basket looking for a call that didn’t come.
Houston still had eight more attempts from the line.
The Jazz closed the third quarter with a 7-1 run, then opened the fourth with Giricek’s 3-pointer that extended the lead to 64-52. Utah didn’t score again for more than 4 minutes, but kept Houston off the board as well and thrilled the home fans with every stop.
McGrady made his first four shots and scored 13 of Houston’s 17 points in the first quarter. … Giricek started a 9-0 run at the end of the first with a 20-foot jumper and added a 3-pointer with 6.8 seconds left to give Utah a 23-17 lead at the end of the first. … Only nine of Houston’s 43 rebounds came on offense.