HOUSTON — So much of what the Houston Rockets have become under coach Mike D’Antoni focuses on the volume of 3-pointers taken and the influence their perimeter proficiency has offensively.
And even with a preponderance of evidence undergirding their dramatic improvement defensively, the Rockets’ reputation remains cleaved to 3s and offensive efficiency, so much so that following the defensive clinic they orchestrated in Game 4 on Sunday in Salt Lake City, some Rockets were first greeted with queries on how many 3s they missed in their 100-87 win.
While at some point the narrative will change, the Rockets aren’t at all misguided. They stand one victory shy of clinching their Western Conference semifinal series with the Utah Jazz, and if they defend in Game 5 on Tuesday night at Toyota Center like they did in Games 3 and 4, the Rockets will likely advance to the Western Conference finals for the second time in four years.
“That’s how we’re going to win — period. Defense is going to win championships,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. “At this point, everybody who is still in the playoffs is a great team. Everybody can score, everybody can do everything. So it’s going to be the team that prevails on defense, (the team that) gets stops that’s going to win.”
After allowing the Jazz to shoot 50.9 percent overall and 40.7 percent on 3-pointers while picking up a split of the first two games of the series, Houston limited Utah to 40.1 percent shooting in Games 3 and 4, including 31 percent from behind the arc.
The Jazz built momentum in Game 2 behind strong showings from rookie guard Donovan Mitchell and veterans Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder, with Mitchell posting a double-double and Ingles and Crowder torched the Rockets from the perimeter.
Their collective success withered in Utah.
Mitchell and Ingles shot 30 percent and 34.8 percent at Vivint Smart Home Arena, respectively, with both missing 10 of 14 3-pointers. Crowder finished 8 of 13 on 3s at Toyota Center but was just 2 of 10 at home from deep and missed 15 of 17 shots overall.
The Rockets, with their switching defense and individual defenders, harassed the Jazz on the perimeter knowing full well that center Clint Capela would protect the rim if dribble penetration was surrendered.
Capela has enjoyed a dynamic postseason, averaging 15.4 points, 13 rebounds, and an NBA-high 2.6 blocks. He had six blocks in Game 4 and was everything Houston could hope for.
“He’s put himself in this position to go out here and play at a high level and just do things that we ask for him to do,” Rockets guard James Harden said of Capela. “Every single night he has our back, and it feels good to have somebody have our back like he does.
“He doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, he doesn’t ask for a lot, he just goes out there and does his job every single night. As a result, six blocks and 20 altered shots. That’s what he does.”
What remains for Utah is an uphill battle against a defense ranked second in efficiency this postseason. The Jazz flirted with the possible return of guard Ricky Rubio from a left hamstring injury only to lose guard Dante Exum to the same malady. Forward Derrick Favors (ankle) was slowed by injury in Game 4 yet played, leaving Utah facing elimination with a hobbled roster.
Perhaps being forced to dig deep into the bench led to Utah missing 22 shots at the rim in Game 4, or maybe it was the influence of the Houston defense. Whatever the case, the Jazz need hasty improvements.
“You can’t take anything away from them and the way that they play,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “But in order to beat them you have to be able to convert those opportunities, and we just didn’t.”