What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Just like in last week's game against the Kings, and just like many losses from a year ago (including an early season game against the Rockets), the Thunder undid all the good things they accomplished in coming back from a huge deficit by playing an unintelligent last three minutes of the game.
We can discuss the cold shooting of the opening quarter or the tenacious claw-back by the bench in the 2nd quarter, or the way the two teams traded punches for the rest of the game, but in the end it doesn't really matter. All that mattered in the end was that the Thunder had a three point lead, with the ball, with just over a minute to go, and the team could not close the deal.
On the road, in a hostile environment, against a team that is acting like it is trying to beat the best team in the West, the Thunder have to figure out a way to produce enough points in that final minute to hang on. They did not.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder lost?
To flip this analysis on its head, I have to give a lot of credit to the Houston defense. Right from the outset, the Rockets defenders acted like they had a definite plan in place to slow down the Thunder. OKC is a superior offensive team, but Houston did a great job slowing them down and making them play a more physical contest. The Thunder only had 10 fast break points and seldom found open lanes to drive on. Houston chose to guard the Thunder high out on the perimeter, and the Thunder rarely made them play by running back-door cuts or weak-side lobs. Chandler Parsons did a great job guarding Kevin Durant, using his quick hands to stop Durant's drives.
All in all, the Houston defense had a lot to do with the Thunder's struggles on the night.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
0 for 1.
0 for 1 is the number of Thunder free throws taken and missed in the 4th quarter. The free throw line is the place where veteran teams put away their opponents when the game is on the line. The free throw line is the oasis a team that is struggling shooting the ball seeks out to keep its offense moving forward. Durant finished with 33 and Westbrook with 26, but neither one shot the ball particularly well. When the shots refused to fall in those final minutes, one of those guys, or James Harden, had to recognize that they had to figure out a way to manufacture some points to hold off the Rockets.
Instead, Harden missed a contested 3-pointer after not running any play at all, then Westbrook missed a contested 3-pointer after not running any play, and finally Durant missed another deep contested 3-pointer with plenty of time left in the game. These three guys have to realize that a contested 3-point shot is always going to be there, but it is incumbent on them to find a better shot in those first 20 seconds of the shot clock, and if the shot isn't there, then make the refs blow the whistle and get to the free throw line.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
Just like the loss against the Kings, this was a winnable game that the Thunder could not finish in the end. Furthermore, it is a sign that some of the end-game problems from last season still need to be addressed. I know that the Thunder have some amazing shot-makers, but what I hate most about these crunch time ISO plays is that it makes the opposing defense's job much easier. As long as they just keep Durant/Westbrook/Harden in front of them, the shot either goes in or it doesn't. But they have little else to worry about in terms of weak-side motion, pick and rolls, or anything else that the Thunder like to do in the first 45 minutes of the game.
Also, once again the Thunder got lit up defensively by a scoring guard. Tonight, Kevin Martin scored 32 points off of 10-18 shooting and was really the only scoring punch the Rockets had. Yet the Thunder could not stay with him, and his lone scoring punch was enough for the Rockets to eke out a win against the Thunder.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 33 points, 8 rebounds
Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, held to only 6 points and 5 rebounds
Thunder Plunderer: Kevin Martin, 32 points, 4-7 from 3-point range
Next Game: vs the Denver Nuggets, Friday February 17, 7:00 PM Central Standard Time