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Jazz fall to Harden’s 43, fail to secure season tiebreaker over Houston

The bearded free-throw shooting wonder strikes again

NBA: Houston Rockets at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In what may be a playoff seed-altering game, the Utah Jazz (30-24) failed to put up when it mattered, falling 125-98 to James Harden and the Houston Rockets (30-22).

Not only was Saturday evening’s contest a chance for the Jazz to win the season series over the Rockets for just the third time in the last 10 years, it also presented an opportunity to move up in the Western Conference standings. A win would have bumped the Jazz from seventh to sixth, leapfrogging the Rockets, who remain in that sixth slot one game behind the Spurs.

Harden extended his streak of 30-point games to 26 by scoring 43. Of those points, 15 came on free throws (he went a perfect 15 of 15 from the line). The MVP front-runner has averaged more than 14 free throw attempts per game in the 26-game stretch of 30-point outings.

“Obviously James is really hard to guard,” Kyle Korver said. “He has really mastered his ability to draw fouls, and the step back three. They space the floor well. Even if you have the best gameplan he’s really hard to guard.”

“It never feels like he’s selfish,” Quin Snyder said. “It just feels like he’s making the right play all the time,” Snyder said. “He’s playing at a level that is rare.”

Certainly not helping the matter was the abysmal shooting on the part of the Jazz. In the first half, Royce O’Neale was the only player with more than two field goal attempts to shoot above 40 percent. Donovan Mitchell went 2 of 10 overall and 0 for 2 from three. The starting lineup as a whole — which featured Jae Crowder over Derrick Favors for the first time since Jan. 21 — was a combined 9 of 34 (26.4 percent).

“The way they played defense, I think it took us off what we do,” Rudy Gobert said. “When a team switches everything like they do we should be able to punish them inside and we couldn’t just because they were too aggressive.”

Utah attempted 40 threes on the night, the eighth time this season. They were previously 6-1 in games where they attempted at least 40 triples and made 38.5 percent on average in those games. The Jazz made 28.2 percent from deep Saturday.

“Tonight was one of those night’s where we just couldn’t really make anything as a team,” Korver said. “We had a really tough shooting night again.”

Despite the poor shooting, the Jazz stuck with Houston for most of the first half. With 1:57 left to play in the second quarter, Utah trailed the Rockets by six points, 51-45. Then Houston went on a 12-5 run to bump that six-point lead to 13 at 63-50. Harden scored seven of the 12 by himself, in a row, over the course of three possessions.

Instead of a concerted effort to reduce the double-digit deficit with renewed offensive vigor and increased efficiency, the Jazz wound up scoring just 19 points in the third quarter, surrendering a 22-point advantage to the Rockets by the end of the quarter. Utah would cut that lead down to 15 midway through the fourth, but faltered down the stretch to end up losing by 27.

“I would have liked for us to play better and have a more competitive game,” Snyder said. “But we’ve got three games until the All-Star break and now it’s an important time to take a day and catch our breath and recharge as best as we can.”

Utah’s final three game before the break will be two home games against the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs and than at Golden State. The Jazz will have three days of rest before taking on the Suns, who are currently on a 10-game losing streak.

Mitchell finished with 26 points, nine assists and six rebounds but also had five turnovers. Rudy Gobert had a double-double with 10 points, 13 rebounds and a pair of blocks. Derrick Favors had a season-high five blocks.