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Rock: An injury-riddled Utah Jazz team can't beat a healthy contender

SALT LAKE CITY — You had to wonder, as the clock expired in Sunday’s playoff loss to Houston, if the Jazz realized they have been playing with house money. How did they get here? More importantly, how have they stayed?

Oh, right. A brainy coach and some fiery players and hours in the film room. But that’s where the narrative veers. They’re playing the team most likely to win the NBA championship. Meanwhile, the Jazz are just trying to patch together a lineup.

One game away from playoff elimination, the Jazz take a survival test, Tuesday in Houston. They now must do what just 11 teams have done: overcome a 3-1 deficit. One of those teams happened to be the 2015 Houston Rockets. That roster had some names that should sound alarms all over Utah: Clint Capela, James Harden and Trevor Ariza.

Same names that are pushing the Jazz toward extinction in 2018.

Although emotion and execution have driven the Jazz thus far, they are matched in a seven-game series against a premier team. So every moment they survive is a gift. The Rockets want this series out of the way so they can get on to play Golden State in the conference finals. The winner of that series is likely to win the NBA championship.

For Jazz fans, this might be a good time to uncover the grill and gas up the RV. After surprising Houston in Game 2 at the Toyota Center, the Jazz are now on the endangered species list, along with snow leopards and independent voters. Don’t expect the Jazz to mail in Tuesday’s Game 5 in Houston. If they were going to do that, they would have done so last summer, when the team seemed set to disintegrate.

At the same time, the conference semifinals this year have been a true educational experience. The Jazz have had a front-row view of what contenders look like; teams such as the Rockets, who come back harder after a loss. Houston obliterated the Jazz on Friday. By winning 100-87 on Sunday, the Rockets have moved the Jazz to the brink of extermination.

If the Jazz can’t defend their own court — they are 0-2 at Vivint Arena in this series — the odds of winning three straight games are minimal.

For all the optimism over the Jazz winning Game 2 in Houston, the series increasingly points to the difference between good teams and contenders. The Rockets have enough firepower to take down a fleet of battleships, yet they shot just 26 percent from 3-point range Sunday.

“We haven’t shot well the whole series,” said Houston coach Mike D’Antoni. “There’s all different ways to win.”

The Jazz have Donovan Mitchell and somebody else, depending on the night. Joe Ingles has had a nice playoff run. Rudy Gobert is a threat when he gets the ball low. Derrick Favors has increased his range and confidence. But no one except Mitchell is a sure thing. Even he had an off night in Game 3.

Teams need more than one guarantee as the playoffs roll along.

Unlike Game 3, which took off like a speedboat, this one was subdued and earthbound by comparison. Houston edged ahead and held the Jazz about a dozen points back for most of the night. In the late third quarter the lead stretched to 19. But the Jazz ground back, actually pulling within five with 5:58 to go.

Both teams appeared sluggish and out of sync to start. Neither shot well, especially from long range. But the Rockets had more producers, better percentages, and destiny on their side.

The Jazz had Favors hobbling with a bad ankle, Ricky Rubio out with a hamstring problem, and Dante Exum leaving with a hamstring injury.

“That could have easily been a blowout,” Snyder said. “Obviously 13 points is not a close game, but the fact our team was able to cut it the way they did says a lot about who they are. No moral victories, but we gave ourselves a chance to be in the game. We took some shots and kept coming, kept coming, but couldn’t get over the hill.”

That’s understandable. They had basically two starters and a significant reserve with injuries. And were facing a fine team that isn’t asking permission to move ahead. While the Jazz insist they made mistakes, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. Even perfection takes a hit when several pieces are missing.