HOUSTON -- The Utah Jazz, a relentless team that fought its way from nine games under .500 in late January all the way to the Western Conference semifinals, had put itself in position to perhaps pull off another amazing rally.
The Houston Rockets' lead, which swelled to as large as 27 points in the first half of Sunday's Game 1, had been sliced to 11 early in the fourth quarter. Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell had heated up after a slow start, a threat to go on the kind of scoring flurry that sent the Oklahoma City Thunder on an early vacation.
"I was sweating," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni admitted.
But D'Antoni had a simple solution: He summoned James Harden off the bench a few minutes earlier than he normally re-enters the game in the fourth quarter. Harden responded as a soon-to-be MVP should. After he snuffed a Jazz fast break with a steal, Harden scored eight points over a span of 2:09.
That was the most important stretch of Harden's masterpiece performance in the top-seeded Rockets' series-opening 110-96 victory. He had 41 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, seizing control of the game from Houston's opening possession and preventing the Jazz from mounting a serious comeback bid down the stretch.
The Jazz, featuring likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert as a rim-protecting anchor, are as dominant a defensive team as exists in the modern-day NBA. Harden, however, has been the riddle Utah has been hopeless in attempting to answer.
Sure, the Rockets' regular-season sweep of the Jazz occurred before Utah's astounding turnaround, but Harden's numbers from those meetings still jump off the stat sheet. He averaged 34.3 points with a true shooting percentage of .737 in the four games, with the last being played on Feb. 26. That includes a 56-point, 13-assist show on Nov. 5, when Harden was 19-of-25 from the field, which would probably be the best individual performance in the league this season if not for his 60-point triple-double against the Orlando Magic.
How does Harden consistently make it look so easy against such an elite defense?
"Just because he's that good," D'Antoni said. "I don't think I'm telling you anything you haven't seen with your own eyes. Just what he does with his step-backs -- he's 7-for-12 on 3s -- I don't know how you guard that. I don't know how you guard him going to the rim with his strength [and] passing ability. He's got so many ways to beat you, and then the fouls [he draws] if you try to take some of them away. He's one of the best.
"The defense is really good. Their defense is super, but James is James."
The Jazz hoped that Russell Westbrook would launch long-range shots off the dribble last series. Those are shots that Harden hunts, his step-back jumper developing into arguably the league's most lethal weapon this season.
When Harden hits those at a high clip, even the best defenses are helpless against him. There just aren't sound ways to prevent Harden from dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing with the dribble, darting backward at any variety of angles and dropping rainbows.
Send a double-team at Harden and he will make the right pass, putting your defense at a disadvantage. Crowd him and he'll attack on the drive, a threat to finish, draw a foul, feed Clint Capela for an easy bucket (as he did five times Sunday) or find an open shooter.
"For the most part, I'm going to do what I do," Harden said. "Offensively I think this team, us, we're different. We've seen so many different defenses throughout the year that have prepared us for this moment, whether it's Gobert being back at the rim or teams switching or whatever. We've seen pretty much it all, all year. We watch film and we figure out how we can create 3s and create opportunities for each other and then go out there and play our butts off. Pretty simple."
The Jazz clearly have plenty of company in their inability to come up with answers to the Harden riddle. He led the league in 3-pointers and free throws made by wide margins this season, winning the scoring title a year after winning the assists title. He's paired with another future Hall of Fame playmaker in Chris Paul, and they're surrounded with snug-fitting complementary parts, but Harden is the guy who will keep the Jazz coaching staff up into the wee hours all series.