SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Time and again in the fourth quarter, Luc Mbah a Moute saw 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert guarding him on the perimeter.
His eyes lit up.
After all, he had a feeling this might happen and the Rockets forward took advantage.
“I just slowed down and took what the defense gave me,” Mbah a Moute said. “It’s always fun to make them pay for a mismatch and make shots.”
Mbah a Moute scored 15 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and James Harden had 26 points to lift the Houston Rockets to their 13th straight win, 96-85 over the Utah Jazz on Monday night.
Playing the second side of a back-to-back set at high altitude, nothing seemed to come easy for the Rockets but the Jazz committed 22 turnovers, many of them unforced, to ease the pressure.
Mbah a Moute saw Denver center Nikola Jokic guard him for a while on Sunday night admitted it threw him off. Against the Jazz, he was ready.
“I watched the tapes this morning and saw how I could exploit it if ever that kind of matchup happened again. … The opportunity presented itself so I was already prepared for it and I took advantage,” Mbah a Moute said.
The Jazz seemed determined to limit Harden and run the Rocket’s top shooters off the 3-point line but Mbah a Moute exploited the open shots and lanes to the basket to keep the Jazz at bay.
Mbah a Moute went 7-for-7 and Chris Paul added 15 points for the streaking Rockets, who trailed by as many as 15 in the first half.
“That was a big grind-out game for us. We got here and didn’t know what guys were going to be out, so it was just next-man-up,” Paul said. “We expect Luc to take and make those shots. We trust each other.”
Coming in, it was a matchup of two of the hottest teams in the NBA. The Jazz had won 12 of 13 games but couldn’t find easy baskets against the Rockets scrambling defense.
Gobert scored 17 and Donovan Mitchell had 16 to lead the Jazz, who were 7-of-29 from 3-point range – including the Jazz rookie who was 1-of-9.
“We just weren’t together,” Mitchell said. “Unforced errors — I had eight turnovers out of 22. That’s damn near half. Just mental mistakes.”
Rockets missed 15 of their first 17 3-pointers themselves but the cold spell didn’t last as Trevor Ariza hit back-to-back long balls to give the Rockets their first lead of the second half at 59-57. Stifling defense helped stretch that to a 77-65 advantage early in the final period with Harden on the bench for much of a 14-2 run.
When Mitchell drove for a dunk with 4:30 left in the second quarter, the Jazz took their largest lead at 44-29.
The Rockets won all four meetings with the Jazz this season by double digits.
The contest began a stretch where Rockets play six of seven on the road but Houston remains on a pace for the best record in franchise history even with a depleted roster. Ryan Anderson was out with a groin injury and Eric Gordon and Clint Capela missed the game with illness. Brandan Wright sat with a sore knee.
“This is probably our best win of the year because we were short-handed and we grind it out. I didn’t know how we were going to win, and they figured out a way,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Rockets: Joe Johnson, who was traded by Utah at midseason and then signed with Houston, received applause when he entered the game in the first quarter. … Harden and Jae Crowder banged knees in the final minute of the second quarter. Harden rocked on his back and grimaced but then played the rest of the half. … The Rockets scored a season-low 39 points in the first half.
Jazz: Backup PG Raul Neto missed his third straight game with a right ankle sprain. … As the first half came to an end, Joe Ingles and Harden hand fought, bumped and talked trash. Ingles, the NBA leader in 3-point percentage, missed four of his five of his attempts beyond the arc and scored 6 points. … The Jazz held the Rockets to fewer than 10 3-pointers for the first time since Oct. 23.
LET’S JUST HOOP
Paul said they play a certain style no matter who’s out there on the court. Before the Rockets went out for the opening tip, Paul wasn’t worried about who was injured and if they might have odd rotations. “Alright, we got who we got. Let’s just go hoop,” he said to his teammates.
ALPHA DOGS ARE BARKING
D’Antoni isn’t concerned about motivating the Rockets. “Hey, you know your alpha dogs are hungry. They play. They love to play basketball. James (Harden) loves to play, so he’s ready to go every night he can. … and the chemistry’s really good.”
Rockets: Visit the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.
Jazz: Host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.