The Houston Rockets cruised through the first two games of their opening-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz this week, winning by 32 points and 20 points, respectively.

Saturday night, back in Vivint Smart Home Arena, the Jazz finally showed up. Yet even with a historically-bad offensive night from the best offensive player in the league, it still wasn’t enough.

The Rockets escaped a tight matchup in Salt Lake City, beating the Jazz 104-101 to take a 3-0 lead in the series.

“They played us tough, no doubt about it,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They had their energy right and the crowd was great for them, but merit our guys. We found a way to win it. We just didn’t play well. We made some silly turnovers … obviously James was 3-for-20 and you win with that, normally we would say you can’t win that way. But because of defense, rebounding, big shots … some good stuff happened. Won it.”

The Jazz jumped out to just a slight 2-point lead in the first quarter thanks to 13 quick points from Donovan Mitchell, but didn’t give the Rockets the lead once in the opening 12 minutes. Utah pushed their lead to five points at halftime, thanks to a huge 3-pointer from Joe Ingles to close out the second quarter.

While their offensive game was impressive, it was the Jazz’s defense that stood out. James Harden scored just six points in the first half, but went 0-of-10 from the field — including 0-of-5 from behind the arc — to mark his worst half of shooting this season. They totally shut the reigning league MVP down.

Despite a rough offensive game from James Harden, the Rockets escape Game 3 against the Jazz with a win. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Harden’s struggles continued into the second half

Harden had yet to hit a field goal by the end of the third quarter, missing all four of his shots in the period. But the Jazz struggled to take advantage of his rare offensive lapse, and only held a two point lead entering the fourth quarter.

Harden, after an NBA playoff record 0-of-15 start from the field, finally hit his first field goal at the 7:32 mark of the fourth quarter — slamming down a wide open dunk to give the Rockets a three-point lead. He followed it up on the next possession, too, drilling a 3-pointer from the edge of the half-court logo over Jazz forward Joe Ingles.

With one minute left, the Jazz had cut the Rockets’ lead to just two points, though Harden quickly extended it to four by hitting a pair of free throws. After bouncing back and forth with free throws on both ends, the Rockets held a 3-point lead with just 10.1 seconds left in the game — though the Jazz had one last chance.

Mitchell, after catching the inbounds pass, missed a wide open 3-point attempt to tie the game. A Rockets rebound sealed the deal, giving Houston the three-point win.

Harden still led with 22 points and 10 assists, having gone 14-of-16 from the free throw line but just 3-of-20 from the field. Yet when asked about his rough shooting night after the game, both Harden and Chris Paul insisted that they had no idea how bad Harden was shooting. Even when ESPN reporter Cassidy Hubbarth didn’t believe them and called them out on it, the duo remained adamant. They were just playing.

“I went 0-for-15?” Harden asked Hubbarth after the game. “I didn’t know that. I don’t remember.”

“I went up to him right there in that timeout and I said, ‘Get your swag up,’” Paul said. “He knows how we play. We don’t play that percentages. We don’t look at how many shots you missed or made. We put the work in. That’s what you work all summer for. We believe in him, like we believe in Gerald and everybody on our team. We keep playing and stay the course.”

Mitchell led the Jazz with 34 points, shooting just 9-of-27 from the field. Derrick Favors dropped 13 points off the bench, and both Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert added 10 points.

Game 4 of the series is scheduled for Monday night in Salt Lake City, where the Rockets will attempt to make it out of the first round of the playoffs for the third-straight season.

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