Harden, Westbrook combine for 72, Rockets beat Jazz

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Team are trying to get creative in guarding the Houston Rockets.

Russell Westbrook doesn’t think the ploys are effective.

James Harden shrugged off traps to score 38 points, Westbrook faced two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and still had 34 and the Rockets beat the Utah Jazz 120-110 yesterday.

“I don’t know if it’s working. I get whatever I want. I get to the basket. I shoot. I drive and kick. The pace and speed you can’t scout for,” Westbrook said.

Harden (13 for 23, six three-pointers) and Westbrook (14 for 26) were efficient all night and the Rockets rode a big third quarter to their third straight win.

Houston Rockets’ Russell Westbrook attempts a layup as Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert defends. PHOTO: AP

“It obviously didn’t work,” Harden said when asked about putting the seven-foot-one Gobert on the six-foot-three Westbrook.

Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore each scored 12 off the bench for Houston.

Donovan Mitchell scored 31 and Jordan Clarkson had 22 for the Jazz, who cut the Rockets’ lead to seven in the fourth quarter a couple times but could never get closer.

The Rockets made the Jazz pay when they occasionally double-teamed Harden and couldn’t rotate fast enough to the perimeter shooters. After a season high-tying 25 three-pointers in their last outing against Golden State, the Rockets made 20 of 48 from beyond the arc.

“We have two guys, even more than two guys, that are able to put pressure on the rim. Teams are going to come and help and then our shooters have open shots,” Harden said.

The Rockets made their move in the third quarter when they outscored the Jazz 38-19.

“When we don’t make shots, it really impacts our defence. That said, I thought in the third quarter, we didn’t have the same energy we needed on the defensive end. We didn’t get our hands on balls, we didn’t get deflections, and we fouled just once which tells you a little about our aggressiveness,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

Westbrook capped a 14-2 run with a jumper and Houston led 100-85 entering the final period.

“It’s cash money when they guard like that,” Westbrook said.

The Rockets made eight of their first nine three-point attempts to take an early eight-point lead.

Taking advantage of Houston’s lack of rim protection, Clarkson scored 20 points in the first half to help the Jazz recover and move in front.

The Jazz played zone defence at times along with some non-traditional defensive matchups against the small-ball Rockets.

“Every game has been different so we just need to figure out how they are going to guard us and attack it. If they trap me, we are going to get open 3s. If they play us regular, we’ll run our offence and still get it,” Harden said.

If Harden and Westbrook are rolling, unique strategies don’t seem to matter.

“We got two of the best one-on-one players in the world. What are you going to do?” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.

The Jazz lost to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday and could hardly afford another slip-up on the second half of their back-to-back as they jockey with the Rockets for playoff position in the last third of the season.

Houston and Utah now both have records of 36-20 but the Rockets claimed the season series, 2-1.

All the Rockets mentioned improved defence, especially in the third quarter, as the key to the win. The Rockets held the Jazz to 6-for-19 shooting in the third quarter and forced five turnovers.

“We took the challenge better. They were coming at us and we weren’t surprised but we weren’t really into them and we didn’t guard as well as we could (in the second period). That’s the mark of an experienced and veteran that we just came out and manned up,” D’Antoni said.

“That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to guard. If we guard at a high level like we’ve been doing, the sky’s the limit for us,” Harden said.