The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Houston Rockets at home, 98-80. Despite playing without Russell Westbrook for a 2nd consecutive game, the Thunder once again relied on their defense (11 steals, 37.8% shooting by Houston) and controlling the glass to prevent easy second chance points to position themselves for the win. This victory earns them their 7th consecutive in the win column moving them back into the middle of the pack in the West. More important, the team is wrapping themselves around a renewed identity of defense-first that can sustain itself even without their starting backcourt.
Paul George led the way offensively with 20 points and 6 assists, but more importantly, it was the way he helped set the tone on defense that allowed OKC to pull ahead early. Even as George struggled shooting the ball (7-21, 3-11 from three), he snagged 6 steals, often reading the play sets Houston was running ahead of time (team-high +35 on the night). Working in tandem with Steven Adams, who also provided solid output (19 points, 10 boards, 6 offensive), the Thunder defense rarely broke down in the way that Houston made teams’ defenses do a year ago. As a result, The Rockets shot only 11-42 from three and got to the free throw line 10 times, usually a place where they create lots of scoring opportunities and helped drive their stratospheric offensive efficiency a year ago.
The Thunder were able to hold the Rockets backcourt duo to a combined 29 points on 11-30 shooting. James Harden, possibly still recovering from a lingering hamstring injury, rarely had the quickness he relies upon to get to the rim for both layups and free throws, as evidenced by his three total trips to the charity stripe. Chris Paul struggled even more, shooting only 4-11, while collecting 5 assists against 5 turnovers. In the end his visible frustration boiled over as he got tee’d up for taunting the referee.
This win, despite its somewhat grisly veneer, is perhaps the team’s most impressive during this win streak. They were facing the regular season leaders from a year ago who were a win away from the Finals and this year finally starting to round into form, and the Thunder systematically shut them down where even wide open looks clanked off the iron. That’s the funny thing about an attentive defense — it can turn even easy shots into hard ones.
Lastly, the turning point in this game was during the final stretch of the 2nd quarter. After the Thunder jumped out to an early lead, the Rockets had chipped things away until they took the lead at 39-38 with 6:20 to go. The Thunder responded with a 19-6 run, capped by a George three, that pushed them to a lead they would never surrender again. The door would be slammed shut in the third and, even though OKC only managed 39 second half points, the Rockets were offered little room to recover.
- The Thunder bench is perhaps an unsung hero. While they didn’t light up the night, scoring only a combined 20 points, that still bested the Rockets’ output, and they kept the defensive intensity up throughout. To be sure, Houston was without former 6th man of the year Eric Gordon, which likely would have tilted this game in a different trajectory.
- Carmelo Anthony — 1-11, 0-6 from three, 5 rebounds, zero assists. Just going to leave that there.
- Jerami Grant — I’m still not convinced he’s OKC’s power forward of the future, but this is what I’m talking about when it comes to the kind of offensive efficiency he can generate. 11 points off of 5 shots to go along with 6 boards and 2 assists, including this ridiculous lob that drew an and-1.
- Big shout out to Terrance Ferguson, who finished with 14 on 5-10 shooting, including 4-9 from three. He still has a long ways to go, but he looks reengaged and beginning to understand where he needs to be and what he needs to do when he gets there.
- Tip o’ the cap to Raymond Felton, who hit some big shots during his 2nd half stint, which helped hold off any Houston run. He finished with 10 on 5-9 shooting. He still needs to play less, but when he’s in there, made shots do help.
- Nice, controlled game by Dennis Schroder. He didn’t get into a point guard pissing match with Chris Paul, but instead played to his team’s strengths, only took 12 shots, finishing with 14 on the night, and repeatedly looked for his open teammates. That his assist count only reached 5 has more to do with open misses (9-37 from three) than anything else.
- Steven Adams — when I said he should be taking more shots, I didn’t mean the variety where he catches the ball in the post, pounds-pounds-pounds the rock, and then pivots. That isn’t his game. His game is one of motion, a Kiwi ballet, moving in and out of screens, and then catching the ball on the move and finishing with his 8 foot floater or finishing at the rim. And let us not forget, his deceptively deft offensive skill is grabbing offensive rebounds and then hitting cutters to the rim: