Russell Westbrook, James Harden Flash MVP Form as Rockets Beat Jazz

Michael Shapiro

The stakes of the Rockets' 120-110 win in Utah on Saturday were certainly higher than that of your standard February game. Not only did Houston leapfrog the Jazz for No. 4 in the Western Conference on Saturday night, the Rockets also secured the head-to-head tiebreaker over their Western Conference rival. So how did Houston snag a double-digit victory in Utah? The formula was simple. 

Russell Westbrook and James Harden combined for 72 points on just 49 shots on Saturday, dominating the second half with a stream of step-back threes and highlight dunks. No other Rocket scored more than 12 points on Saturday, but a pair of superstar performances–as well as improved second-half defense–paved the way for a critical post-All-Star break victory.

Here are three takeaways as the Rockets improved to 36–20 in 2019-20.

Rockets' Stars in MVP Form

The Rockets' path to the Western Conference crown is unclear, but 30-plus points from their pair of MVPs is certainly a good start. Russell Westbrook and James Harden torched the Jazz on Saturday with 72 points (38 for Harden and 34 for Westbrook) as both players shot over 50% from the floor. In a pivotal matchup of Western Conference contenders, both of Houston's superstars stepped up. 

Harden led the Rockets on Saturday, and he appears to have fully put his strange shooting stretch in the rearview mirror. The NBA's scoring leader needed just 23 shots to score 38 points, finishing the night with a game-high six threes. Harden's step-back was fully functional in Utah. He roasted whichever defender the Jazz sent his way in isolation. The non-Wilt scoring record is still very much in play. More performances like Saturday night will certainly help Harden approach the 37.1 points per game mark set by Michael Jordan in 1986-87.

Harden led the Rockets in scoring on Saturday, but Westbrook was certainly effective in his own right. It was shades of 2016-17 on Saturday as Westbrook banged home two threes and six mid-range jumpers, though his shot selection didn't result in a dampened field goal percentage. Westbrook finished the night 14 of 26 from the field en route to 34 points, adding one mammoth alley-oop dunk in the process. It's certainly difficult to take down Houston when its stars are performing at such a high level. 

Third-Quarter Defense Sparks Victory

Houston entered the locker room trailing 66-62 at halftime on Saturday, losing the points-in-the-paint battle by 18. It was little surprise for the Rockets to be beaten inside by Utah and Rudy Gobert, but it wasn't the Jazz's center who sparked the paint disparity. Rather, it was Utah's guards. The Jazz continuously beat the Rockets off the dribble in the first half, creating a slate of open lanes to the rim. Houston clamped down in the second half. 

The Rockets' perimeter defense was sturdier after the break, as was their weak-side rotations. Houston defenders swarmed Utah in the third quarter, collapsing the lane and rotating back onto shooters with ease. The results were impressive. The Jazz scored just 19 points in the third quarter, allowing the Rockets to seize a lead they wouldn't relinquish. All five defenders have to be active and engaged without a true center in the lineup. The Rockets certainly were in the second half on Saturday.

D'Antoni Trims Rotation

Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni trotted out 12 players in Thursday's win over the Warriors, potentially signaling an expanded rotation for the season's final stretch. Saturday's win marked a return to D'Antoni's traditional style. 

Nine Rockets saw the floor on Saturday night, with a trio of potential frontcourt contributors earning a DNP-CD. Thabo Sefolosha failed to play for the first time in 12 games, and neither DeMarre Carroll nor Bruno Caboclo saw the floor in their second potential game with the Rockets. Perhaps the aforementioned trio will see limited action moving forward, but Saturday was an indication of D'Antoni's likely playoff lineup. Jeff Green should continue to be Houston's backup center, though otherwise, it's business as usual for D'Antoni as we roll into March. 

Up Next: vs. Knicks on Monday

The Rockets will play a home game for the first time since Feb. 9 on Monday, returning to Houston for a matchup with the lottery-bound Knicks. It's been another rough year for New York, who has lost three straight after a rare four-game win streak to kickoff February. With 25 games remaining, a last place finish in the Eastern Conference is certainly in play. 

Tip-off from the Toyota Center on Monday is slated for 7 p.m. CT. 

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