The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Houston Rockets on the road, 104-92. In a game that was a tale of 2 halves, the Thunder overcame a 14 point halftime deficit and tied the game at the end of the 3rd quarter. The Thunder offense slowed down but the Thunder defense showed up, and in a return volley that still has me shaking my head, they held the high scoring Rockets to only 19 second half points. In the 4th quarter, the Thunder continued to grind down the Rockets and closed out the game on a 14-5 run.
Midway through the 2nd quarter, which saw the Rockets spring for 41 points off of a barrage of 3-pointers, it looked as though the Thunder were going to be outgunned. Without the kind of personnel to match the Rockets' long range shooters, even a 1st half shooting percentage of over 50% was not enough to keep OKC in the game. The Rockets were 12-20 from 3-point range in that first half, and in a heartbeat, they turned a 60-58 lead with 2:36 to go in the 2nd quarter into a 13-1 run to close out the half. Seldom do you see such a rapid succession of scoring in so little time. Fortunately for the Thunder, there was still a half to play.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who finished with a game-high 36 points, which included 18-20 from the FT line, along with 5 rebounds and 7 assists. He was backed up by Reggie Jackson, who has taken his lumps of late but came back with fire in the belly, scoring 23 points and getting 6 steals.
The Rockets were led by Terrence Jones, who scored a team-high 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. James Harden also scored 16 points, but was held 9 below his average and shot only 6-16 from the floor.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
I don't think I've ever seen a game like that.
The first half was one of those fun "defense optional affairs," with both teams running up and down the court and getting whatever shot they wanted. It just so happened that the Rockets got a whole lot of 3-point looks, and drained 12 of them. It seemed as if we were on our way to a breakneck ending in the 2nd half, when with only 2:36 remaining, it was a 60-58 ball game. OKC had been up early, but the Rockets had returned volley with threes and had taken a strong lead. OKC battled back and looked poised to stay in contention despite their 3-point shooting deficit, when suddenly the Rockets closed out the half with a 13-1 run, which included another three 3-pointers. Just like that, the Thunder were down by 14 and had given up a staggering 73 points to the Rockets in the 1st half. Could they be on their way to another blowout loss and be in the process of giving up some 130-140 points to this hot shooting Rockets team? Houston may have just knocked them out in these two and a half blistering minutes of action.
Enter the 3rd, and everything began to change. The one thing that we can say about the Rockets with relative certainty is that what they're trying to do on offense is relatively straightforward. They want to drive and kick, generate layups, 3-pointers, and free throws, and let Dwight Howard clean up any leftovers. Stopping it is a challenge, but there is a means to do it. The Thunder went to work and, just like they did against the Rockets the first time around, started with taking away the shooters. The Thunder's defense tightened up on the wings and very quickly open looks disappeared. Even as the Rockets began to try to make the extra passes to get good looks, the few extra seconds to shoot were gone. The Thunder showed that, even without Russell Westbrook, they can play an aggressive defense that can disrupt many a team.
The Thunder defense, now supercharged and locked in, held the same Rockets team that had just scored 41 points in the 2nd quarter to zero points through nearly the first four minutes. They held the Rockets to only 5 points through the first 8. Just as those final 2:36 of the 1st half told one story, the Thunder defense was telling us a different one.
There was only one problem. OKC couldn't score, either.
As we watched the game unfold, nearly 9 minutes had expired in the 3rd, the Rockets had scored 7 points, and yet the lead was still double-digits. OKC could not make anything either, be it at the rim or beyond the arc. Up to that point the Thunder had not made a single 3-pointer, and this obvious tool, completely absent from the Thunder toolbox, was going to be the culprit.
And that's when "Every Day I'm Hustlin'" checked in.
If the final 2:36 was the tale of the 1st half, the final 2:40 of the 3rd quarter was the tale of the 2nd half. Nick Collison checked into the game with the Thunder down 80-72, and while the defense still locked in, Collison's contribution finally freed up the offense. It seems weird to continue to pile on such praise for a guy who only gets around 18 minutes a night, but once again there Nick was in the middle of an 11-3 Thunder run that tied the game heading into the 4th.
At that point, the Rockets' offense was completely flummoxed. They made 12 3-pointers in the first half and none in the 2nd half. The Thunder defense held Houston to a resounding 10 points in the 3rd, and then did themselves 1 better in the 4th, holding Houston to 9. 19 points total in the 2nd half for a top 5 offense. The difference between the 1st half and the 2nd half of 53 points has to be some kind of esoteric record. All the Thunder needed to do was grind out some offense, and their defense carried them home.
- Game ball goes to Reggie Jackson. He has been much maligned these past 2 weeks, but we finally saw some fight out of "Better Basketball." He too finished with a weird stat line, missing all 6 of his 3-point attempts before making a shot-clock beating deep one that went in off the glass, but he finished with 23 points on 11-19 shooting. Most importantly, Reggie got back to what he does best - finishing at the rim. With the Rockets primarily consumed with stopping Durant, Jackson found plenty of seams to get into. Jackson punctuated his night with a loud windmill slam. The kid earned that moment.
- Durant proved once again that while Chandler Parsons is a viable foil, KD do what KD do. He worked his way to the FT line 20 times, and I'm sure Thunder fans were waiting for Rockets fans to start chirping in an ironic sort of way.
- Serge Ibaka completed the team's tri-fecta, as Durant, Jackson, and Ibaka combined for 80 of the team's 104 points. Ibaka finished with 21 points on 10-13 shooting, but most importantly he helped hold down the defensive glass, grabbing 11 defensive boards (15 overall). Ibaka also did a great job protecting the rim, which was the 2nd half of the Thunder's defensive scheme.
- Derek Fisher...just when we think we're out, he pulls us back in. His offense was painfully inept to the point where I was wondering in the 3rd how long Brooks would tempt fate with him on the court as OKC was putting the screws to the Rockets offense, and then Fisher nailed a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 6, and the comeback was apace.
- Kendrick Perkins, Howard stopper. Whatever you might say about big Perk, this is one thing he does well. He helped hold Howard to 11 points on only 5-13 shooting and 8 rebounds. Perk also grabbed 8 boards of his own. This time around, Perkins was aided by Steven Adams, who used his Kiwi Strong to help hold Howard in check as well. Without any inside presence, the Rockets were going to live and die by the 3-pointer.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Those two mini-games within the game were the lynch pins. The Rockets could have won the game with that 2nd quarter burst, and the Thunder could have lost the game had they ended up wasting their defensive effort in the 3rd quarter.
However, the Rockets kept missing, and the Thunder finally found a way to convert. They were no 2nd half juggernauts, scoring only 45 points themselves, but by limiting the Rockets to only 19 second half points, the Thunder were able to build a cushion and then rely on their defense to prevent the Rockets from going on any runs.
The defensive scheme was sound, and the Rockets now have to be at a mental disadvantage. They have lost to the Thunder twice with Westbrook on the sidelines. The Rockets are a good team, but the Thunder seem perfectly built to halt them in a playoff series.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
When defense is the calling card for the outcome, just go down the defensive statistics:
- The Thunder gave up 12 3-pointers in the 1st half, but none in the 2nd half. Houston shot 0-15.
- Ibaka had 5 blocks on the night, including several on Dwight Howard. The Thunder gave up nothing at the rim. When they did get beat, they were not afraid to give hard fouls.
- The Thunder finished with 11 steals, 6 of those by Jackson. The Thunder did a great job extending their perimeter defense and challenging everything on the wings, be they passes or shots. Many of the Rockets' shots were rushed as a result, even if OKC didn't get a hand on them.
- Even in a final act of defensive defiance, OKC refused to give the Rockets a final possession shot in the game, pressing up on them to the very end.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
What this game shows us is that the Thunder are still capable of playing great defense, even on the road, and hanging in games when their offense is not looking pretty. The Thunder will continue to be up and down as they await Harden's return, but this game should help them show themselves that if they have a plan and stick to it, they can maximize what they do well and hide what they don't.
OKC got this win despite getting practically nothing from their bench (15 points total) but because of their defensive adjustments and the end of the 3rd quarter, they survived. Against Houston. That is sweet.
Thunder Wonder: Reggie Jackson, 23 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals, 1 turnover
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 21 points on 10-13 shooting, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Jeremy Lamb, 5 points on 2-9 shooting
Thunder Plunderer: Terrence Jones, 16 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block
Next game: vs Golden State Warriors on Friday, Jan. 17 at 8:30PM CST