As Russell Westbrook re-kindled his voice in a boisterous MVP discussion (51 pts, 13 ast, 10 reb), a 4-of-18 closing-stanza from the exhausted guard defined his team’s night.
Mirroring game one’s outcome, Wednesday evening, the final impression of Oklahoma City was that of a floundering one-man act.
Meanwhile, steely Houston utilized offensive versatility to avoid ceding home-court as the series turns to Chesapeake Energy Arena.
In an entertaining chess battle, James Harden (35 pts, 8 ast), Eric Gordon (22), and Lou Williams (21) escaped Toyota Center with rooks intact, 115-111 amid a re-shaped Oklahoma City Thunder advance.
Even so, Billy Donovan assuaged game-one doubts by nearly maximizing his available hand with early schematic adjustments.
Though Houston held court at the Toyota Center, with just a bit more shot-making aid, Westbrook, and Oklahoma City could be sitting 1-1.
In a series far from complete, these are five observations from Wednesday night’s point counterpoint between Oklahoma City and Houston.
1.“Can’t play Kanter,” Who then?
Due to matchup concerns —mainly pick-and-roll coverage— Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer, and only reliable means of bench offense was relegated to seven minutes Wed vs. Houston.
Meanwhile, Kanter’s replacement, Jerami Grant, finished -20 plus/minus, though leading Oklahoma City reserves with nine points, five rebounds and two blocks during 26 minutes of play.
Throughout his specious outing, of OKC players to log 10+ minutes, Grant also nosedived with a team-worst DefRtg (134.9) and NetRtg (-37.5).
This begs the question: With a backup option almost as defensively inept, can you play Kanter in situations that call for increased offensive production: such as Oklahoma City’s game-turning fourth-quarter drought?
Perhaps, if Kanter and Grant split their near 34 minutes of combined run, the Thunder could’ve utilized each players’ assets, while stealing home-court advantage.
2) Russell Westbrook’s double-edged outing
As stated, perhaps it was accumulated fatigue from carrying extra minutes, however, Russell Westbrook’s 13-of-25 FGA and +18 +/- opening three quarters quickly deteriorated during a burdensome 4-18, 1-7 3PM, -7 +/- final stanza.
Bereft of viable offensive support, Westbrook hoisted 43 attempts to counterbalance his teammates’ inability to manufacture quality looks.
Oklahoma City’s lone remaining off-dribble simulacrum, Victor Oladipo, again struggled with a 4-of-14 FGA and 1-7 3PM outing.
Undoubtedly, if OKC is to turn the tide, Oladipo must begin producing offense.
3) Thunder bench woes
Houston’s short bench outscored Oklahoma City’s reserves 50-24. The savvy, and shot-making ability of Williams, Gordon, and Nene far surpassed that of OKC’s inexperienced corps.
It is worth noting that no Thunder reserve finished above negative four in the plus/minus category.
4) Gibson buried on bench in fourth
Inexplicably, after amassing a solid eight-point, five-rebound, 3-of-6 FGM, plus-eight +/- line through three, Gibson sat in favor of Jerami Grant during the ill-fated fourth-quarter.
While I feel Donovan redeemed himself in an X’s and O’s sense Wed. night, in hindsight, his reliance upon Jerami Grant in situations where Kanter or Gibson may have been better suited leaps out as a miscalculation.
What makes Gibson’s fourth-quarter absence even more perplexing is the fact that, due to foul trouble, Steven Adams played just four minutes as OKC’s lead evaporated.
5) Looking ahead
Though the Thunder fell behind 0-2 on Wednesday, game two provided a needed dose of optimism as Oklahoma City returns to Chesapeake for a pivotal home stand.
While Donovan flubbed a few areas, mainly overplaying Grant and not playing Gibson enough, he showcased an early cunning spark that allowed his men to place a serious charge into Houston.
As perception has now completely shifted from game one’s blowout, the Thunder has a feasible chance of evening this series over the weekend.
The Thunder and Rockets play again Friday night from Chesapeake Energy Arena.
"We can't give away leads like that on the road, man," Westbrook said. "It's too difficult."
Russell Westbrook on the importance of a sustained 48-minute playoff road performance.