The Oklahoma City Thunder saw their winning streak end at 3, as they fell to the Houston Rockets on the road, 111-107. In a game that was the 2nd night of a back-to-back, which more than anything simply meant that the Thunder would have to play without Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins, it was an ugly affair for both teams in a game that had little flow. Despite the apparent high score, the lack of so many starters (Houston was missing Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley) made it a tough game to watch.
The Thunder had a chance to win this game on the road, as they had an 8 point lead in the 3rd quarter and took a 2 point lead into the 4th, but the Rockets used the free throw line to their advantage all night long. Consistently drawing fouls behind the 3-point arc, the Rockets finished the game shooting 32-37 from the stripe, including 17-20 for James Harden and 10-11 for Chandler Parsons. Harden finished with a game-high 39.
If winning was ideal, the secondary reason for following this mess of a game was to see if Kevin Durant could continue his streak of 25+ scoring games and tie Michael Jordan's run of 40 in a row. As the 4th quarter wound down, it began to look doubtful as he couldn't throw anything in the rim and was stuck on 22 with a minute remaining. The Thunder ran a slick in-bounds play though that sprung him in the corner, and after a 3-ball that brought the team to within a point, Durant had his 25. As bad luck would have it though, Omer Asik, a 59% free throw shooter, went 2-2 on the other end.
Durant subsequently missed a covered pull-up 3 pointer that would have tied it, and after 2 more Harden free throws, the game was virtually complete. The Thunder win the season series 3-1, but this game is likely to leave a bitter taste for a few days.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
I kind of feel like I just went to a 24 hour all you can eat buffet. At a bare minimum, the purpose was accomplished - you go to the buffet to get full, and we watched this game primarily to see if Durant could match Jordan's 40 game stretch. Well, we got to watch basketball in the most literal sense, and Durant got his 25+, so we got our $7.99 worth of cheese sticks and shrimp scampi. Unfortunately for us all, the gastrointestinal after-effects leave something to be desired.
Here is my main gripe, with the lack of Westbrook considered. The Rockets were playing without Howard, who while not fully back to his dominant defensive ways, is still a good post defender. With practically nobody inside to defend, the Thunder still managed to fail to put together a comprehensive game that capitalized on the fact that their front line consists of Durant and Serge Ibaka, two very long, athletic guys who can jump out of the gym. Any time the Thunder got the ball to Ibaka inside the paint, he finished the play with a dunk. Durant never got the ball inside in any sort of set situation.
Instead, what we saw quite a bit of was Durant bringing the ball up the court and allowing himself to get trapped 40 feet away from the rim with no safety valve, and Ibaka attempted 4 3-pointers on the night. I understand that Durant works really well by engaging the offense, but one thing that was apparent was that there was only one guy on the Thunder team who was eluding his defenders consistently, and that guy was Reggie Jackson. Jackson was blowing by his man with ease, finishing with 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. I don't understand why OKC didn't use him almost exclusively to engage the offense and allow Durant to work inside with Ibaka in order to exploit their match-ups.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
The Thunder simply could not build any sort of cohesive game plan throughout the night. The Rockets' defense was crystal clear - they were using Parsons and a 2nd guy such as Asik to trap Durant far from the rim where he could not hurt them, and then waited for someone else to do it. When the Thunder used Jackson, he was carving up the Rockets inside. Jackson should have finished with over 20 points, but missed a few gimme's at the rim.
Instead, we got a healthy dose of Derek Fisher, who played 25 minutes, and Caron Butler, who played 35. Butler to his credit did a solid job, finishing with 13 points and hit 3-5 from beyond the arc, but Fisher was awful. This is partly due to Scott Brooks putting him in a position to fail, and partly because Fisher willingly played the part. Fisher can do some things well, like hit spot-up 3-pointers. One thing he cannot do well at all is create any sort of separation off the dribble. Yet time and time again the Thunder put the ball in his hands and relied on him to create something offensively as Durant was trapped far away from the action, and time and time again Fisher failed. It was tough to watch.
While Butler certainly did his job, the problem is that when Butler and Fisher have to work in tandem with the ball, it can get ugly. They're both exclusively spot-up shooters who cannot do anything off the dribble, including even basic separation. They need to be working along side true playmakers to be able to contribute anything.
Meanwhile, Mr. Jeremy Lamb played 22 minutes (none in the 4th) and finished with 12 off of 5-8 shooting, scoring inside and out because he is a guy who actually CAN score off the dribble. Ho, hum.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The Rockets, again playing without Howard, matched the Thunder's rebounding numbers. The Thunder rebounding has continued to slide as the season has gone on, and they now actually trail Houston in that department.
Again, this goes back to where the Thunder were positioning their best rebounder, Ibaka. If he is looking for 3-pointers 25 feet away from the rim, this means that he is not gobbling up offensive boards (he finished with 4) and scoring on put-backs. Steven Adams and Nick Collison grabbed only 6 between the two of them.
Meanwhile, Harden finished with 9, Terrence Jones got 11, and Asik finished with 12, none huger than his offensive rebound that led to his game-clinching free throws.
I still don't think Houston matches up well against the Thunder in a playoff series, but this rebounding issue could cause problems.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
With no disrespect meant toward the Rockets, who just won their 50th game, this game doesn't mean much moving forward. OKC still trails the Spurs by 3 games in the loss column and leads the Clippers by 3 games in the loss column. I think that barring complete catastrophe, OKC is firmly entrenched in the #2 spot come playoff time.
Looking ahead, Russell Westbrook is expected to be back against the Suns, so we'll see a more complete Thunder team once again. That will be nice. What would be nice too though is for the Thunder to put a little more thought into how much better their players are at certain positions, and then do a bit more to maximize those advantages instead of hoping something good happens when Durant gets trapped at midcourt for the 20th time in a row.
Thunder Wonder: Serge Ibaka, for being the Thunder's most consistent offensive threat, finishing with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 assists, and 6 blocks.
Thunder Down Under: Reggie Jackson, for keeping his strong play alive, getting 17-7-7 on the night.
Thunder Blunder: Derek Fisher, who finished with 3 points and 2 assists in 25 minutes of action.
Thunder Plunderer: James Harden, 39 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals.
Next game: @ the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, April 6th at 8PM CDT