The Thunder found the perfect salve for their offensive woes Friday night, defeating the Houston Rockets 109-94 in a game that was not even that close. If you want our rapid reaction of the game's outcome, you can jump over here. Suffice to say, there isn't a whole lot more that can be added to the basic facts of the game. If you recall from our game preview, I wrote that the Rockets team was the ideal candidate for the Thunder to wake up from their perimeter offense doldrums, but lamented the fact that they were also the kind of team that could end up lulling OKC into a jump shooting contest. Despite the fact that the Rockets were missing Kyle Lowry (who may be returning in tonight's game), they still have enough perimeter talent and offensive rebounding savvy (thanks to Luis Scola and Jordan Hill) that if the game turned into a jump shooting competition, they could put some fear into the hearts of the Thunder.
Fortunately for us all, it is obvious that Coach Scott Brooks is an avid reader of WTLC.
The two main elements that comprised the Thunder win:
1. The Thunder knew how to defeat the Rockets.
As we mentioned in the preview, Houston is soft inside, ranked only 25th in rebounding and 28th in scoring defense. Earlier this week they were torn apart by Blake Griffin and Andrew Bynum, with the Rockets providing little resistance. It was clear from the onset that the Thunder wanted to get the ball to the front of the rim, both to reverse the bad jump shooting trend from their two losses, but also because Houston has no inside presence to challenge those shots.
As you can see from ESPN's game log, the longest shot taken in the 1st quarter was a missed 18 footer by Serge Ibaka, and every made shot was 10 feet and in. OKC attacked early and often and Houston was not able to put any pressure on either the ball handlers or the pick and roll sets that the Thunder ran.
What warmed the depths of my heart the most though was that the Thunder actually stuck to this game plan for the duration of the contest. They never hit a lull where they became offensively lazy for more than a few possessions, always coming back to looking for interior shots and drives to the rim. Aside from the higher percentage shots available (OKC shot 52.5% for the game), it also prevented long rebounds and run-outs by the quick Rockets guards, and bad situations where the Thunder might pick up cheap fouls (they only had 18 team fouls on the night).
2. Houston is a mess.
Houston suffered a humiliating blow by not landing Pau Gasol via the league's nixed Chris Paul to the Lakers trade. Now they are left with a team that has a deficiency of talent in a very talented Western Conference, they have unhappy players, and lastly they have a rookie coach in Kevin McHale who seems to have been running an offensive scheme created by my old JV coach.
I watched Houston closely, and over the course of the game I realized that I had no idea at all what they were even trying to do. I would suppose that Houston's best offense would be some sort of guard-oriented flex scheme, utilizing Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic's quickness and shooting ability to generate points. Perhaps OKC knew this too, and so the Thunder fought to shut down Houston's best offensive strategy. The Thunder trapped their guards out high on the perimeter frequently. This effort resulted in the double effect of preventing the Rockets shooters from getting too many open looks, and also by preventing the Rockets' offensive to flow, Luis Scola was unable to receive the ball in good post position. Scola has had good success against the Thunder in the past, but on Friday night was held to 5-14 shooting from the field for only 10 points and 2 rebounds.
Hopefully for Rockets fans' sake, last night's game was an anomaly, but right now Houston looks like a bit of a disaster on offense. I'm not really sure what they're trying to do, and perhaps it is just one game, but with their lack of offensive focus I think Houston is going to struggle to win very many games this season.
- Kevin Durant's new and improved basketball handle was on full display against the Rockets. To be sure, it certainly helps when Durant was only being met with token resistance, but I cannot remember another game where KD looked so fluid and comfortable moving around with the ball in his hands. His dribble was tight, his motions were compact, and the ball stayed on his hand like a yo-yo. It is the best impression I have yet seen him do of LeBron James. A couple times, Durant took the ball off the dribble and with one hand deftly zipped passes to open teammates in such a quick motion that if you weren't paying attention you missed it. In short, the ball was doing whatever Durant wanted it to do.
- James Harden understood his mandate well - take the ball to the rim. Working with Nick Collison most of the night, Harden ran pick and roll after pick and roll, waiting for seams to open up in the Rockets defense. As soon as they did (and they did with startling regularity) Harden would find the crease and take off toward the rim. He finished with 23 points on only 8-11 shooting.
- Russell Westbrook is reminding me a bit of how James Harden started off the season last year, when Harden was really struggling to find his offensive niche. It isn't that Westbrook is playing bad per se, it's just that he's not playing well yet. Whereas last year he seemed to have a much better understanding of when to attack, where to find the seams, and how to exploit his opponent, in this early season his attack mode seems off-kilter. My guess is that it is a combination of good scouting by other teams (examination of the Mavericks' blueprint, for example) and Westbrook looking to find his offensive groove. Maybe he's being impatient, but I really think it is mostly because teams look more ready to deal with Westbrook. There have been numerous moments where he has attacked the defense off the dribble, and the defense just looked ready for him. I think Brooks knows this, and he ended up running the offense through other players (Durant, Harden) in order to limit Westbrook's uncertainty.
- The Thunder really like strong guards. Reggie Jackson got some quality minutes tonight, and I really noticed his physique for the first time. Between Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, and Jackson, they form a formidably muscular backcourt. I bet they like to make fun of Eric Maynor and his "smooth" muscles.
- Serge Ibaka was my personal unsung hero in the Thunder win. Ibaka has struggled this season in keeping his mental focus, but against the Rockets he was as active as he has been all season long. On Friday night however, he was active early on the defensive end, getting some big blocks. This defensive focus seemed to fuel him offensively too, as Ibaka did a great job running the floor and finishing at the rim. Check out some of his personal highlights:
Next Game: Tonight - Saturday, January 7th 2012, at 7PM CST