The Oklahoma City Thunder dropped their 3rd consecutive game tonight, losing to the Houston Rockets, 122-119. In a game that could easily and correctly have been billed as a game of stars, the Rockets' star back-court of James Harden and Jeremy Lin out-dueled OKC's duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and helped orchestrate a 4th quarter come-from-behind win.
It was a fast paced affair that saw a number of wide lead swings. Houston jumped out in front early by double-digits, only to see OKC race back and take a lead through the 2nd and 3rd quarters. The Thunder likely thought they were sitting pretty mid-way through the 4th up 14 points, but the Rockets found a way to elevate their guard-driven offense and stall out OKC's high scorers, and Houston pulled out the 3 point win.
The Thunder were led by Russell Westbrook, who finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and assists, and Kevin Durant, who finished with his 2nd career triple-double, tallying 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. OKC once again got surprising scoring from defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha, who scored a team-high 28 points as well off of 6-10 shooting from the 3-point line.
The Rockets were paced by their newest All-Star and former Thunder star James Harden, who carved up the Thunder to the tune of 46 points off of 14-19 shooting, including 7-8 from 3-point range, while grabbing 8 rebounds and handing out 6 assists. His teammate Lin finished with 29 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Two general reactions.
1) As an NBA fan, that was an amazing game to watch. On one end of the court you had James Harden doing Harden-things from beginning to end, and it also looks like Lin is finally finding his mojo getting to the rim and hitting pull-up jumpers. The pair combined for 75 points on 26-41 shooting to go along with 14 rebounds and 14 assists. That is amazing backcourt production.
Meanwhile, Durant had a triple-double, Westbrook finished 2 assists away from one himself, and Sefolosha of all people was the team's best shot-maker on the night, hitting 6-10 3-pointers.
If you want a good showcase of NBA talent, this is the kind of game that will turn you on.
2) As a Thunder fan, this was a painful game to watch. The 1st quarter start aside (it happens; one team starts hot, the other does not. OKC did a good job recovering quickly), the two middle quarters should have been enough to put OKC in the driver's seat. You know what? They were. OKC had a 14 point lead in the 4th quarter, guys were making shots, and the Rockets are not known for shutting down other teams' offenses.
To be sure, Harden was unstoppable, either getting to the rim or hitting step-back shots, but really, it should not have mattered. OKC is too talented offensively to have such a let-up as they did in the 4th, and the outcome of the game is perplexing.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
OKC's 4th quarter performances are officially becoming A Problem.
With the exception of Harden, the Thunder have what should be advantages at every other position, and Houston has, with the possible exception of Chandler Parsons, nobody who is remotely capable of slowing down OKC. What happened?
Offensively, while Sefolosha was very good and Westbrook was unstoppable, Durant was passive. We saw this type of game earlier in the year when OKC lost to the Hawks. In that game, OKC was humming along and Durant was doggedly determined to act as playmaker instead of primary scoring option. Through 3 quarters he was looking for his teammates and setting them up for scores. However, when the game became close, Durant's own offense was completely out of sorts and he could not find a rhythm to help deliver much-needed points late in the game.
So it was tonight. Durant finished with 11 assists, but in the process only shot 4-13 and was very passive throughout. Even in the post when he had clear advantages over everyone else, he was swinging the ball across the court. While his passing led to that high assist total, it was accompanied by 5 turnovers. Durant is still learning that passing is good, but only when passing is the best option available. Too often he is too willing to kick the ball out of the post without even waiting for a double-team to collapse on him. That's kind of the point though; the post player works his own offense until the double comes, and then he swings it. It is an art form to be sure, and I remember when the great Tim Duncan had similar troubles in his early career. Durant will learn, but tonight was a disappointing exhibit that he's not quite there yet.
Lastly, I cannot even dwell long on the Thunder's final meaningful possession without wincing. OKC grabbed an offensive rebound off a Durant free throw miss and had 20 seconds to set up a play, down by 3. What was the shot they ended up with? A Durant fadeaway 3-pointer with 12 seconds remaining on the game clock. To be blunt, that is the execution of a team that doesn't know how to execute, not of a team that has played games in the Finals.
Defensively, I don't even know where to begin. Actually, I do. It was in the 4th quarter where...again...the Thunder failed to make any adjustments at all on the primary ball handler (Harden) who was either looking to drive the ball into the lane or shoot step-back jumpers. Where have we seen this before? Why, it was a few weeks ago when we saw Kyrie Irving do the exact same thing to the Thunder defense. In that game as well, we saw precious few adjustments by the Thunder to do anything to keep the ball out of Irving's hands, and he simply went where he chose and hit the shots that he wanted to take.
What makes this defensive breakdown especially frustrating is because in the first two games against the Rockets, OKC clearly had a good defensive game plan in place against Harden and it worked. Any time Harden got the ball, the double-teams and traps were quick upon him so that he could not get a running start at the rim. In this game, OKC all but abandoned that proven technique and I'd really like to know why.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The Thunder held a 12 point lead at 107-93 lead following a Thabo Sefolosha 3-pointer. From that point on, the Thunder made only one additional meaningful basket over the course of the rest of the game. Over that stretch they were outscored 29-12, managed one Westbrook 3-pointer, and Durant did not make a single shot attempt. OKC has turned into an unexpectedly inert 4th quarter offense and tonight allowed one of the worst defenses in the league to completely shut them down.
Aside from the 4th quarter, Harden's stats really stand alone. He shot 14-19 on the night and 7-8 from 3-point range, and a number of those shots were contested. In fact, the ending sequence of the 3rd quarter should have had us all prick up our warning antennae. On one end of the court Westbrook was stripped of the ball as he tried to finish in the lane, and then Harden ended the quarter by doing this:
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
As noted above, the Thunder now officially have a Problem on their hands. They cannot even bost of being a mediocre 4th quarter team this season, which is amazing because over the past 2 seasons, the team staked its entire reputation on being a 4th quarter closing team.
A simple look over their past 6 losses shows a disheartening trend. With the exception of the Heat loss where Miami was already up by 20, this is how the Thunder have performed against their opponent in the 4th:
Yeah, a Problem.
Timberwolves up next.
Thunder Wonder: Thabo Sefolosha, 28 points, 6-10 from 3-point range, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 28 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant, who shot a passive and woeful 4-13 from the floor, undermining his triple-double
Thunder Plunderer: James Harden, 46 points on 14-19 shooting, 7-8 from 3-point range, 8 rebounds, 6 assists
Next game: vs the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, February 22 at 7PM CDT
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