The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Houston Rockets in game 1 on the road, 118-87. In a head-to-head matchup between potential MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Harden came out on top in a big way, both collectively and individually. Harden outperformed Westbrook with a final stat line of 37-9-7 with 3 steals. Westbrook played one of his worst games of the season, finishing with 22 points on 6-23 shooting, including 3-11 from 3-point range and 9 turnovers.
The lopsided loss to Houston was the result of a dreadful 2nd half of play where OKC was outscored 59-33, fueled not so much by a Rockets onslaught (though that did happen late), but in a complete inability to play consistently on either side of the court for the final 24 minutes. It wasn’t the big things, but the small things, over and over again, that allowed the game to spiral out of control. In fact, as the 3rd quarter wore on and it was clear that the sword of Damocles was hanging over OKC’s head, I knew that it was just a matter of time before Houston put together a run and buried them.
What went wrong? It was a combination of Westbrook playing D+ basketball and nearly everyone else playing worse. Chalk it up to game 1 jitters combined with the very significant reality that the Thunder are a young team, but when things got tense mid-way through the 3rd with the lead hovering at the double-digit barrier, OKC collectively got tighter than Cameron Frye (80’s movie reference) and proceeded to lose nearly every 50-50 ball, saw numerous point blank shots rim out, and got a collective case of the yips any time a pass tried to find its mark. They committed 9 turnovers in the 3rd alone. But what made it significantly worse was that Houston wasn’t playing great ball by any stretch; they simply weren’t making so many egregious errors, and instead continued to work the small percentages to their advantages. Even though they shot worse than OKC in the 3rd, Harden & Co. got 10 freebies from the charity stripe and only turned it over 3 times. This disparity drove the final outcome.
As a fascinating aside, who would have thought that, through 3 quarters, the two best players on the court would be each team’s respective defensive catalysts? But it’s true. Andre Roberson was the Thunder’s best player on the night, performing a masterful job on Harden (don’t let the final Harden line fool you; watch what Robes did to Harden when they were actually matched up) to go along with 18 points on 7-10 shooting, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. Houston’s primary offense nearly every time down the court was to find a way to get Robes off of Harden, his defense was so exceptional. Meanwhile, hold your nose and cover your eyes if you must, but Patrick Beverley outplayed Westbrook on both ends of the court, finishing with 21-10, including a much better poise and understanding how to help his team’s offense. (But I will give you permission to enjoy Steven Adams’ sledgehammer of a pick on Beverley for 5 seconds).
At the end of the day, yes this game was awful, and it’s the latest of too many awful games this season to count. It is what happens when OKC’s system of Westbrook doing everything doesn’t work and the young guys panic. But also, I kind of predicted this would happen:
Last year, the Spurs ... wrecked OKC in game 1 (You can look it up). And at that point, everyone figured that OKC’s run was over and they’d probably lose Durant in the offseason due to such a poor showing (here is where I want to swallow my own head).
The Thunder responded by taking game 2 on the road with a finish you could probably call a “We got Dion Waiters!” kind of moment.
The Thunder went on to win the next 3 out of 4, shocking the Spurs, but one key element, and this has been true since 2010, manifested. It is this: OKC tends to get better as series go on. They get smarter, more aggressive, tending to assimilate the other team’s strengths along the way.
So even as I expect OKC to kind of get blown out in game 1 and everyone ready to declare the series over and Harden supporters to preemptively scream that MVP voters just pulled an Olajuwon in 1995, I won’t be too distraught.
Because then something will shift. I think. And everything will change.
Now, whether I am a prophet or not remains to be seen, but I will say this - don’t panic yet. Also, I’d strongly suggest steering clear of this site for a couple days.
- The Thunder were the best rebounding team in the league. Tonight they got battered on the boards, 56-41, including 14-7 on the offensive glass. This is perhaps the biggest underlying indicator on OKC’s chances in this series. They didn’t do a lot of things better than other teams this year, but rebounding is one of them. And if they don’t outperform in this one area, they have no shot.
- Victor Oladipo was cover-your-eyes awful in his first ever playoff game, shooting 1-12 (0-6 from three) and failed to take any pressure off of Westbrook. With the way that Beverley and Ariza are targeting Westbrook, this series could be made by how Oladipo plays. But it’s gotta be so much better than what we saw tonight.
- Steven Adams wasn’t much better. OKC simply cannot win games in this series if Adams is the 3rd or 4th best big man on the court. Yet he was outplayed by skinny Clint Capela (14-7, 3 ORBs), Nene Hilario (15-5, 7-8 shooting), and even Beverley grabbed more boards, 10-5.
- Speaking of Nene, an aside. I’ve been watching him for a long time, ever since he was paired with Carmelo Anthony in Denver and started getting massive contracts even though his output never seemed to justify it. It was puzzling how a big man that strong and that quick could disappear so thoroughly in playoff series. So it is surprising to me, and in a pleasant way, to see him find his role in Houston. He’s always been strong, but even though he looks like he’s aged considerably (right now he looks like a 45 year old Crossfitting jazz musician), my guess is that he’s finally figured out the kind of diet and conditioning necessary to be effective. So good job, Nene. And now please OKC, try to at least get in his way on the PnR.
- Enes Kanter may not be playable, at least in the way he was used tonight. Yes, Harden is going to work him into a switch every time he can, and yes Enes is going to get schooled. We know this. But on the left block, he was useless against both Capela and Nene. Capela is long enough to bother Kanter’s shot, and Nene is strong enough to hold off Kanter’s bull-rush. Unless they start moving Kanter around in active PnR sets, we’re going to see a lot of step-back jumpers from him, and that’s not going to be good enough.
- Jerami Grant played a solid game. We noted after the last Houston blowout that Billy Donovan stayed too long with a big lineup that could not rotate quickly enough when the Rockets ran their spread offense into a side PnR. Grant’s quickness and athleticism addressed that, and he continued the positive trend tonight. He’s not going to be a series-changing player, but he was one of the few who had a positive impact.
- Despite all of these criticisms listed above, this is what concerns me most - Houston is quite literally an average defensive team, and are prone to giving up a ton of points. And yet OKC has struggled mightily to put points on the board. My worry is that Houston is pretty decent at playing defense spread out across the arc (perhaps because that’s their offense, so they have to guard against it in practice). They trap, play passing lanes (Russ’ 9 TO’s), and have quick hands between Harden, Beverley, and Trevor Ariza, among others. The Thunder’s offense is primarily entailed of Westbrook getting a high screen and then making a play. The problem is, this is the one thing that Houston is actually good at defensively, and the Thunder offense looked awful for much of the night.
Two good places to change it up - start getting Westbrook posting up on Beverley, where he’ll have a height and strength advantage, and secondarily, start attacking Harden’s defense. Just because he’s trying this year doesn’t mean he’s suddenly good at it.