The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Houston Rockets in game 4, 113-109. In a gut-wrenching loss at home, OKC could not stop the Rockets’ systematic attack in the 4th quarter, yielding 40 points with their season on the line. Russell Westbrook, who raced out to a triple-double by halftime, could not save his team in this game, and perhaps, the season as they now face an elimination game on the road, down 3-1.
Both Westbrook and his MVP counterpart struggled mightily at times during this game, but James Harden, who finished with 16 points on 5-16 shooting (0-7 from three), was able to make a few more plays in the end than Westbrook. Key late in the 4th quarter were two characteristics that will define this series - the Rockets’ ability to draw fouls, and the performance of Nene Hilario, who has been the best big man throughout this series. How unlikely?
This is kind of crazy:
Nene doesn't go to Houston if Andrew Bogut opts to be traded to Rockets instead of Mavs when Warriors gave him a choice. https://t.co/ZUUXtwm7tA— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 23, 2017
In other words, if Andrew Bogut had seen the Rockets as the better team in Texas instead of the Mavericks (just another one to misjudge the Rockets during the offseason), Nene would never have come to Houston and put up a stat line of 28 points on 12-12 shooting with 10 rebounds (4 offensive), including a backbreaking and-1 to push the lead to 4 with 11 seconds remaining. That play followed an improbable 4 point play where Steven Adams made a foul shot, missed the second, gathered his own rebound, and kicked it to Westbrook for the 3-point shot. If there was a glimmer of magic in the air, it would have been then. Alas.
There is a reason why, even though only a few possessions have separated these teams all season long, the Rockets are the 3 seed and the Thunder are the 6th. It is because, top to bottom, they have better players who play better together. And this was displayed no better than how the Rockets’ bench has demolished not only OKC’s bench, but completely altered the Thunder’s ability to give Westbrook and Adams adequate rest. It isn’t that they outplay the Thunder bench, it is that they do it so thoroughly and so quickly. It allowed the Rockets to stay competitive in a game where the Thunder looked to be in control numerous times and Harden was having a nightmare of a game. The bench trio of Nene, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams combined for 64 points on the night, and may have just won the series for them.
Not all is lost, as the numbers “3-1” suddenly have a magical meaning of their own, but OKC’s deficiencies in this series and this season have manifested again. The NBA playoffs are like nothing else, because they reveal everything; every strength, every flaw. If the Thunder are to somehow survive, they will need something extra special Tuesday night.