James Harden scored 26 points as the Houston Rockets booked their place in the NBA playoff Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday with a 100-93 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Harden, the 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player, led the scoring as the Rockets overcame an improved Utah defensive effort to clinch a 4-1 series victory at Houston’s Toyota Center.
The win means Houston face a potential blockbuster meeting with the Golden State Warriors in the next round. The Warriors lead their first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers 3-1.
The Rockets had cruised to blowout victories in the opening two games of the series, winning by margins of 32 points and 20 points against an overwhelmed Jazz defense.
However, with Utah fighting to stay in the series on Wednesday there was rarely much daylight between the two sides, with the first quarter ending level at 20-20.
Houston pulled ahead to lead 46-40 at half-time and had opened up a 75-67 lead heading into the final quarter.
Utah managed to stay in touch, though, and pulled to within four points at 86-90 with just under 4min 30sec remaining.
But Utah’s Ricky Rubio missed a golden chance to put the Jazz ahead, squandering a wide open three-pointer from the corner to leave Houston 94-93 ahead.
The momentum shifted after that error, PJ Tucker adding two free throws to make it 96-93. Harden then made a superb steal and drew a foul to earn two free throws that put the Rockets up by five with 38 seconds remaining.
Chris Paul added two late free throws to make the game safe. Paul finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Royce O’Neale led the Utah scoring, finishing with 18 off the bench. (Agence France-Presse)