In what might be the team’s most impressive win of the season, Paul George proved he belongs in the MVP conversation as Oklahoma City came back from down 26 to beat the Rockets in Houston, 117-112. George posted 45 points on just 22 shot attempts and led the team’s defensive effort against fellow MVP candidate James Harden, who finished with 42 points but struggled down the stretch as OKC hung on for the win.
OKC, looking to make headway in the West, fell behind early behind a barrage of 3 pointers from Houston, and trailed by 22 at the half. Harden powered the Rockets to the big lead with 25 points, while Russell Westbrook struggled with turnovers.
The first quarter was a relatively close affair, ending with the score 28-25 in favor of the Rockets. PG led the way with two early 3 pointers, and OKC showed off a balanced attack with all starters getting up multiple shots early on. Turnovers were the biggest plague on the team, as they coughed the ball up 7 times in the quarter. The Thunder had some early defensive success, with Paul George doing well defending Harden and Jerami Grant providing excellent help defense, although OKC’s struggles in pick and roll defense continued with Kenneth Faried getting some easy buckets When George went to the bench halfway through the quarter, things took a turn for the worse- Harden was able to dust Terrance Ferguson twice and get to the cup, as well as nailing a filthy 3 pointer from the corner despite solid defense from Ferguson.
That proved to be an omen for the second quarter, when Harden and the Rockets seemingly blew the game wide open. Harden drilled multiple step back 3’s in the quarter, including one where he shoved Paul George to the floor before shooting, missing, but then succeeding in hitting a second attempt after the offensive rebound went to Houston, and another where he was nearly 29 feet from the rim. That’s what Harden does- he hits step back 3’s, and he sometimes gets away with shoving off. You can live with that as a defense- Harden is an MVP candidate who will make some of those shots even when well-defended. What really killed OKC was how easily they allowed dribble penetration from Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon. Slow rotations following that penetration led to a lot of easy layups and open 3’s. As the deficit piled up, OKC started forcing some bad shots on offense to try to stem the bleeding. Russell Westbrook was an offender as expected, but Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant both forced unnecessary looks in the quarter, and the team committed numerous turnovers as well. The team failed to find shots for Paul George, who had only 4 points in the quarter. By halftime, Houston led 70-48.
Billy Donovan must have given the halftime speech of his life, because OKC came out guns blazing in the third on both ends. OKC hit their first 7 shots in the quarter, several of which were very easy looks off of turnovers. After only forcing 2 turnovers in first half, OKC forced 6 in the quarter. Terrance Ferguson was magnificent in the 3rd, dropping 11 points, as was Dennis Schroder, who added 12 of his own. OKC even got big minutes from the rarely seen Deonte Burton, who held up decently well when Harden targeted him in the pick and roll aside from one bad foul on a 3 pointer. But it was of course Paul George in the center of the comeback, dropping 13 points (including an and-1 3 pointer) in the 3rd quarter. Russell Westbrook was much more under control, going into full playmaking mode in the quarter and pushing the pace in transition. By the end of the quarter, the score was tied at 90 as OKC had outscored Houston 42-20 in the quarter, setting up the dramatic final frame and OKC’s ultimate victory.
The Thunder took the lead back behind several big shots from George, but Houston retook the lead with George on the bench. OKC’s struggles without George continued in this game with Russell Westbrook forcing several tough jumpers during that stretch, missing 6 straight to allow the Rockets to recover.
Westbrook finished with 21 points on just 8-21 shooting, but did post his 9th straight triple double and made 2 huge plays to close the game out. First, Westbrook burst to the rim for an uncontested layup to put the Thunder up 1 with 31 seconds left. Then, after being switched onto Harden, Westbrook forced his old teammate into a tough step back 3 that missed, and the ensuing possession led to George hitting two free throws to put them up 3. A turnover on Houston’s final meaningful possession, as Steven Adams deflected a pass intended for Gerald Green which could have led to an open three, all but sealed it.
Yet OKC wouldn’t have been in position to win if not for George, who put up 15 points in the quarter and came up with big 3 pointers just when OKC needed them, finishing 6-14 from beyond the arc.
Westbrook finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists for his 9th straight triple-double. George finished with 45 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists. George racked up 5 fouls by the end of the game, as did Terrance Ferguson, Harden’s other primary defender. Harden finished with just 1 assist to go with his 42 points, while Chris Paul added 18 points and 9 assists for the Rockets.
OKC improves to 36-19 on the season, and are now just 1 game behind Denver for second place in the West. Houston drops to 32-23 and is currently in 5th in the West. With the tight standings in the West, it’s very possible these teams face off in the first round of the playoffs in a few months time.