Just before Game 2 of the first-round series between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets tipped off Wednesday night, Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT’s studio show, “We’ll have to see if the Jazz play old-school defense or gimmick defense.”
Utah lost Sunday’s opener 122-90. Of all the talk about its unconventional methods against Harden in that game — which saw defenders favoring his left side so much they often chose to play behind him to prevent his highly efficient step-back 3-pointer — it didn’t seem to matter much Wednesday.
Whatever Jazz defenders chose to do in the first half, Harden countered it and Houston scored.
When played straight up? He connected on several step-back 3-pointers. Heavily favored on his left hip? He drove and assisted 3-pointers to PJ Tucker and Danuel House. Play him tight? He was fouled on two 3-pointers, too.
Harden nearly outscored the Jazz in the first quarter, scoring 17 points for a 39-19 lead. He finished with 25 in the first half for a 70-44 lead.
Watching Harden feels like old gatherings when your friends snuck a cheat code into your video game and you’re helpless to do anything but accept defeat. Wednesday wasn’t even about the irritating way Harden can exploit loopholes to get free throws. He just flat-out decimated the Jazz.
DAME TIME GETS WINGS
Damian Lillard, proud son of Weber State University, had himself quite the game as the Portland Trail Blazers waxed the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-94 to take a 2-0 in a game that concluded late Tuesday.
It wasn’t so much about his line in the box score, at least in the fact that he’s had better games than 29 points, six assists and four rebounds (though it might have been about the three steals, two blocks and his plus/minus of plus-27).
It was definitely about swagger.
Portland trailed the entirety of the first half before Lillard assisted CJ McCollum on a 3 at the buzzer to tie it 54-54.
Then Dame Time took flight.
Midway through the third quarter, Russell Westbrook backed Lillard down in the high post and turned to shoot, but Lillard slapped the ball to the floor. Steven Adams recovered for OKC and handed the ball back to Westbrook, who bricked a 3 with Lillard contesting.
As Al-Farouq Aminu secured the rebound for Portland, Lillard clapped his hands and yelled to his bench. He then took the ball from Aminu, calmly walked into a 30-plus-foot 3-pointer and buried it.
Oklahoma City instantly called timeout, now down 69-63. Lillard walked to his bench with his arms out like airplane wings and shouted, “Bombs away!”
Indeed, as OKC has shot a measly 10 of 61 (16.4%) from deep in the series, Lillard has connected on multiple extra-long-range 3s in the series. He’s 9 of 19 (47.4%) from 3 in the two games, including two ultra-deep makes down the stretch in the fourth quarter of a close Game 1.
Lillard closed Tuesday’s third quarter by assisting two consecutive Seth Curry 3s — one after his own steal — was fouled on a 3-pointer and made all his freebies, then put Raymond Felton in a blender to hit a stepback 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Lillard’s will made it 91-75 and may as well have ended the game 12 minutes early.
Now relevant to both the Jazz and the Blazers: in NBA history, teams who go up 2-0 in seven-game series go on to win 93.4% of the time.