“We’re different,” Harden said. “We’ve seen so many different defenses throughout this year that have prepared us for this moment.”
Both the Rockets and the fifth-seeded Jazz are in the conference semifinals for the second straight year. The Rockets, who beat the Timberwolves in five games to advance, lost to the Spurs last season, and Utah was eliminated by Golden State.
On Sunday, the Jazz got 21 points each from the rookie Donovan Mitchell and Jae Crowder while playing without the starting point guard Ricky Rubio, who sat with a strained left hamstring after averaging 14 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7 assists in the first round. Royce O’Neale started in place of Rubio and finished with 4 points and 4 assists.
The Rockets had 10 3-pointers by halftime, led by three apiece from Harden and P. J. Tucker. They finished with 17, including seven from Harden, which tied his career high for a playoff game.
The Rockets were up by 18 entering the fourth quarter after Paul hit a 3-pointer at the end of the third. Utah scored the first 7 points of the fourth to cut the deficit to 86-75, but Harden made three free throws over the next minute to end the run.
Rudy Gobert, who had 11 points and 9 rebounds, dunked the ball after that, but a 3-pointer by Harden extended Houston’s lead to 92-77 with about eight and a half minutes left.
Utah Coach Quin Snyder seemed at a loss as to how to limit Harden, the front-runner for the Most Valuable Player Award, who had the sixth 40-point playoff game of his career, along with eight rebounds and seven assists.
“He’s a special player,” Snyder said. “It’s hard to give credit to all the things that he does. He just impacts the game in so many mays. You have to try to make it harder for him.”