Before a sea of red within the unrestrained Toyota Center, stonewalled at every turn, the Thunder wilted a fourth-consecutive time before Houston's offensive labyrinth.
The combination of James Harden and unsung Patrick Beverley stretched the Thunder’s ill-prepared defense to the pairs’ exact liking while placing 58 points upon the board.
No matter Harden’s matchup (37 pts, 9 ast, 7 reb), the MVP-candidate repeatedly found ample driving lanes while burying mesmeric step backs.
That Harden broke free from the confines of Andre Roberson (18 pts, 7 reb, 4-6 3PM), and a number of lumbering switch defenders, doesn’t surprise. However, what does surprise are the observations that follow.
1) Oklahoma City’s starting backcourt dominated by Houston’s
Following three razor-thin wars of attrition, the competitive veneer pierced during OKC’s March 26 setback to Houston collapsed Sunday night.
Historic Russell Westbrook (6-of-23 FG, 3-11 3PM, 9 TOV, 22 PTS) and running-mate Victor Oladipo (1-of-12 FG, 0-6 3PA, 6 PTS) were overshadowed by the Rockets’ tandem of Harden (13-28 FG 37 PTS) and Beverley (8-13, 4-of-6 3PM, 10 REB, playoff career-high 21 PTS).
As Houston transitioned this series-opener from legitimate competition to bench-emptying exhibition, flanked with unabashed confidence, the Rockets’ starting tandem appeared to inhabit an altogether higher realm of basketball consciousness than their counterparts.
Whereas OKC unsuccessfully employed predictable offensive tactics, Houston’s pick-and-roll mastery roused their offense to hyperactive levels, even minus the usual three-point barrage.
Moving ahead, with an already elongated adjustment list, Billy Donovan must prioritize the means by which OKC defends the Rockets’ multi-layered pick-and-roll schemes.
Trite, but Adams and Kanter simply cannot be stranded on a perimeter-island with James Harden.
2) Patrick Beverley: X-Factor
Pugnacious, Beverley, a former second-round draft pick, hounded Westbrook’s every step, and placed the NBA’s single-season triple-double leader in unenviable positions from opening tip to final horn.
No doubt, Beverley’s two-way performance (81.7 DefRtg, +33.9 NetRtg) stymied the Thunder’s already limited offensive sets from developing into substantive point-generating endeavors.
This season, with the 6’1 Houston guard in tow vs. OKC, Oladipo is 18-56 from the field.
During a recent pre-series interview, I foreshadowed the possibility of Beverley’s tenacious play becoming a true hindrance:
“Consider, however, that rugged Patrick Beverley was absent during Oklahoma City's lone seasonal win vs. Houston.
OKC's initial productive outing was catalyzed by Westbrook's season-series low 20 FGA as backcourt-mate Victor Oladipo added 29 vital points.
Yet, with Beverly in tow, Victor Oladipo's output dwindled (17-44 FG in 3 losses vs. Hou) as Westbrook's number of forced attempts (27 FGA) rose.
Undoubtedly, vs.OKC Beverley's presence held a considerable impact for Houston's cause, and there is no reason to doubt that this will be the case when the playoffs open.”
3) Team Rebounding
Coming in, rebounding was considered one of Oklahoma City’s lone advantageous areas opposite Houston. And for good reason, throughout the regular campaign, OKC led the NBA (46.6) in rebounding; whereas, Houston (44.4) ranked eighth.
However, sparked by Beverley (10), Ryan Anderson (12), Capela (7), and Harden (7) the Rockets gang-rebounded masterfully to a 56-41 glass edge vs. Oklahoma City.
OKC’s three primary bigs —Adams, Gibson, and Kanter— combined for just seven rebounds as Houston’s 14-7 control of the offensive glass led to a decisive 31-4 leverage in critical second-chance points.
This leads us to:
4) Points in the paint
Again, after leading the NBA this season in points in the paint, Oklahoma City’s curiously prone interior fell victim to Houston’s bully-ball, 62-38 underneath.
Even as the Thunder halted Houston’s three-point tendencies (10-33 3PA), this effort was waylayed by the Rockets’ unabated post presence.
Simply, Capela (14 PTS), Nene (15), and an unchecked guard corps headlined by Beverley and Harden overshadowed OKC’s non-existent paint resistance.
Sunday night, in addition to other predictable areas, Oklahoma City had its trademark toughness and low-post grit nullified by a smaller, less physical grouping.
Greater effort from this Thunder group is required for it to remain relevant past this time next week.
5) Looking ahead
Obviously, Houston, due to athleticism, style of play, and pace, is a difficult opponent for Oklahoma City. And that is acceptable. However, what is unacceptable is the Thunder’s unwillingness to adhere to team strengths.
Yes, Westbrook and Oladipo failed to deliver. But that alone does not excuse OKC’s passive tenor on Sunday night.
While this is one game in a seven-game series, and OKC was in a similar position vs. SAS last post-season, a different fabric altogether comprises this Thunder grouping.
Versus formidable opponents, large stretches cannot be eschewed and then rescued by a diversified effort. Hopefully, the Thunder will make the necessary adjustments, and if nothing else, display greater resolve for game two Wednesday night.
"As a point guard I have to try to find ways to split the defense. They're switching with the big [man] and taking our 3-pointers away, so I just tried to get to the basket."
James Harden on his strategy opposite OKC’s switching defenses.
"The turning point was not an exact moment, but offensive rebounds and second-chance points was what really killed us.The bigs, especially me, played trash on the reads, and the pick-and-rolls were absolute garbage. We have to get back to the drawing board."
Steven Adams’ candid remarks regarding how he and his team struggled against Houston’s pick-and-roll game, and OKC’s immediate need to regroup.