Chris Paul never has to hear it again. He made damn sure of that.
For everything he’s accomplished in the NBA — the All-Star nods, the All-NBA selections, the countless dimes delivered and defenders put on skates — he’d never in his 13-year professional career made it out of the second round of the postseason. Injuries and late-game meltdowns and cruel acts of the basketball gods had all combined to keep one of the best point guards of his generation from playing past mid-May, and to give his critics all the ammunition they’d need to question his bona fides. Well, there goes that.
Paul scored 20 of his career-playoff-high 41 points in a peerless fourth quarter to carry the Rockets past the finish line for a 112-102 win and eliminate the incredibly tough Utah Jazz in five games. The Rockets will advance to the Western Conference finals to take on the winner of the West’s other semifinal series between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans, and will host Game 1 of the conference finals at Toyota Center.
The Point God returns
On a night where All-Star running buddy James Harden didn’t have it going — just 18 points on 7-for-22 shooting in 35 minutes for the likely 2017-18 NBA Most Valuable Player, whom head coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game was “under the weather” and “hurt” — Paul took over. He drilled 13 of his 22 field-goal attempts — including eight straight 3-pointers, capped by a dagger-ish banker to put Houston up nine with 2:30 to go — and distributed 10 assists, hauled in seven rebounds and snagged a steal while logging a team-high 38 minutes without a single turnover. He was breathtaking, to a historic degree …
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2018
According to @EliasSports, Chris Paul's performance tonight is just the 2nd 40-10 game in a series-clincher in NBA playoff history.
The only other guy to do it had a pretty decent career pic.twitter.com/9gTCpLzHat
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2018
… and now, he’s got a particularly persistent black mark off his Hall of Fame résumé.
Rockets forward P.J. Tucker was excellent when called upon, helping settle Houston’s defense and making timely shots on the other end. He scored a career-postseason-high 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including a 5-for-7 mark from behind the 3-point line, to go with six rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 36 minutes, some of which were spent playing as an extreme-small-ball center when D’Antoni chose to downsize and play five-out to try to overwhelm the Jazz at the start of the fourth quarter.
The injury bug bites Utah one last time
The Jazz entered Tuesday down two of their top guards, with starting point man Ricky Rubio still sidelined by a hamstring injury and key defensive reserve Dante Exum joining him with one of his own. Still, Quin Snyder’s club battled, coming back from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to take a lead entering the fourth behind a remarkable surge from rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell … only to watch him, too, go down hard after being stripped by Harden on a drive that led to a Rockets layup:
The Rookie of the Year hopeful, who had scored 22 points in a relentless third quarter to give Utah a lead entering the fourth quarter, needed to be helped off the court and back to the locker room by Jazz personnel.
Mitchell limping to the locker room. Man. pic.twitter.com/05fwhr7vxj
— Dime on UPROXX (@DimeUPROXX) May 9, 2018
Mitchell would eventually return to the sideline, but do so with his left shoe and sock off. He would not return to the game, forced to watch the final seven-plus minutes of Utah’s season tick away from the sideline. He finished a tremendous campaign in which he announced himself as a star on the rise with a team-high 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting, nine assists, four rebounds and a steal in 34 minutes; after the game, the Jazz announced that he’d been diagnosed with “left foot soreness,” that X-rays on the injured foot came back negative, and that he’d receive further testing when the team returned to Salt Lake City.
Even without their top gun, though, the Jazz just kept coming, cutting the deficit to one point on a 3 by guard Royce O’Neale (17 points on 6-for-10 shooting) with 4:34 to go. But Paul was just too much down the stretch, scoring or assisting on all 15 Rockets points over the final 4:09 to put the game away.
Both teams started out slow in the series’ first potential elimination game. The Rockets missed nine of their first 11 shots, including their first six 3-pointers, but the Clint Capela-led defense remained stout enough to keep the Jazz from taking advantage, as Utah started just 5-for-13 itself. All it took were three empty Utah possessions — Raul Neto turning it over trying to loft a lob for Rudy Gobert, Jae Crowder losing the ball out of bounds, Harden blocking a Neto layup — for Houston to get some transition buckets and find a little bit of rhythm. The Rockets ripped off a 14-2 run to take control, holding Utah to just five points over the final 5:21 to take a 21-16 lead after one quarter.
Reserve guard Alec Burks, who went from out of the rotation early in the opening round to absolutely vital after the injuries to Rubio and Exum, kept the Utah offense afloat early in the second quarter. Snyder turned to a lineup — Gobert, Jonas Jerebko, O’Neale, Burks and Mitchell — that he’d used for only four minutes all year before Game 5 to provide a two-way spark. He got what he was looking for.
An O’Neale layup off a feed from Burks drew the Jazz within two, 36-34, with 6:22 to go in the first half. Three minutes later, a Burks corner triple off a dynamite drive-and-kick feed by Mitchell knotted the game at 43, as Gobert and company continued shutting off every Rockets driving and passing lane to muddy up the game and keep the underdogs within striking distance.
With Houston totally sapped of its offensive rhythm, the Jazz just needed to hold fast for the final two minutes of the quarter to head into half without handing the Rockets any momentum. Paul, though, wasn’t having any of that.
First, he resorted to craft to get himself going, using a swing-through move to catch Joe Ingles’ hand in the cookie jar and get himself to the foul line for a pair of free throws. Then, in the final minute, he took over, drilling consecutive 3-pointers and feeding Tucker for a third in the quarter’s closing second to cap an 11-3 run and send Houston into halftime with a 54-46 lead.
One last ride for Utah’s rookie marvel
If they were going to extend their season, the Jazz would need to find a source of offense. Their rising rookie star was ready to answer the call.
After a quiet first half that saw him score just two points on five shots (while dishing six assists, to be fair), Mitchell absolutely dominated the third quarter. He roasted Harden on isolations, getting all the way to the rim. He drove on the longer and more physical Luc Mbah a Moute, fought through double-teams from helping big men, spun his way to the rim and delivered magic finishes through contact. He isolated on Paul, stared him dead in the eye, and drilled a pull-up 3-pointer, letting everyone in Toyota Center know that if Utah’s season was going to end on Tuesday, it was going to be over his most strenuous objections.
Mitchell outscored the Rockets by himself in the third quarter, 22-21 — his second 22-point quarter of his first postseason — while also assisting on three buckets to account for 29 of Utah’s 32 points in the quarter. With Harden continuing to struggle, missing six of his eight shots in the third and looking downright spooked of trying to finish over Gobert inside, Mitchell grabbed the game with two hands and took it over, staking Utah to a 78-75 lead entering the final 12 minutes.
The rookie playmaker called. The veteran raised. Now, the Rockets roll on to their second Western Conference final in the last four seasons — and, perhaps, a date with the team they were built to destroy.
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