August 18: Houston Rockets 123, Oklahoma City Thunder 108; Houston leads, 1-0
Theoretically, this was the perfect game for Oklahoma City to win. The Thunder were missing Lu Dort, their best perimeter defender, but the Rockets were missing Russell Westbrook. Considering it’s Lu Dort vs. Russell Freaking Westbrook, you would think Houston lost that trade. It sounds obvious, but Oklahoma City needed to run up the score in the first 2-3 games before Westbrook returns.
As you can guess from the score above, they did not.
It’s a pretty simple game to evaluate: for whatever reason, Houston came out hyper-attentive on defense and happily willing to make the extra pass. It’s the most fun they’ve looked as a full roster since the 2018 Western Conference Finals. They stayed strong on defense for most of the game, which is great, but critically, they hit a ton of wide-open threes. That hasn’t happened often, as we discussed last week when they played the Pacers and lost.
If you hit 20 threes in a game, you should win, full stop. Houston did, and it was never in doubt after the first few minutes or so.
First, we should talk about the defense, the side of the ball that has most often evaded these Rockets. Oklahoma City’s offense is not all that special, but they’re capable of hitting a bunch of mid-range shots and have the capability to hit plenty of other shots, too. They never had that chance against Houston until it was too late. Houston forced a ton of bad long mid-range shots and made the shorter mid-range looks tougher than usual. Pretty much everyone on the OKC roster struggled to hit these looks they adore so much, as we’ll explore later.
Houston went full-throttle until it was safe to let off the gas, i.e. the fourth quarter. It was funny to see them do this, because the most full-throttle member of the roster was on the bench in a Yeezy Brand-esque tee cheering his team on. Russell Westbrook makes this defense better, especially in the playoffs, where his energy is boundless and he uses all that’s left of his athleticism to keep his guy in front of him. But: it might be time to have a discussion about Houston’s offense while Westbrook is on the bench.
With Westbrook on the court this season, the Rockets have scored 112.34 points per 100 possessions in his 2,049 minutes – a pretty solid rate, one that would rank 10th-best in the league across a full season. In all minutes without Westbrook, though, the Rockets are nearly three full points better: 115.25 per 100 in 1,427 non-RW minutes, or the second-best offense in basketball behind Dallas. If you limit this exclusively to games Westbrook played in, which eliminates 15 games from our sample, the Rockets scored 120.77 points per 100 possessions – easily the best rate in basketball. Lastly, there is this:
- Rockets offense, both Harden and Westbrook on: 112.17 points per 100 possessions (#11 offense), 1,434 minutes
- Harden on, Westbrook off: 119.79 per 100 (#1 offense), 1,082 minutes
- Westbrook on, Harden off: 112.72 per 100 (#7 offense), 615 minutes
- Neither on: 104.9 per 100 (#30 offense), 393 minutes
This is not a “gotcha!” thing or even anti-Russell Westbrook content; I think RW is one of the more uniquely fascinating basketball players of my lifetime. But if the Rockets are going to do this without Westbrook on the court, it’s at least something to consider.
Anyway, the game itself didn’t end up being about Russell Westbrook. It was about James Harden’s continued greatness, about this weird Rockets supporting cast, and about what happens when Houston finally does the little things right.
Harden, as usual, was marvelous: 37 points on 22 shots, 6-for-13 from three, and buckets from all over the court.
He is simply such a purely great scorer that even defenses as tough as OKC’s have a heck of a time slowing him down at all. Harden was in total control from start to finish in what I’d call one of his more unique box score lines: 11 rebounds and just three assists. However, he still had another great passing show where he was responsible for three secondary assists, or what we’d more commonly call the hockey assist. He continues to be so, so good at picking up points no matter where he is:
Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees both in life and in sports. I feel like we’ve somehow come around to underrating James Harden’s greatness. He’s a top-three regular season basketball player that remains top-five in the playoffs, a yearly MVP candidate that never wavers. Understandably, his game isn’t for everyone, and there’s plenty of times where I get exhausted watching him isolate for 22 seconds of the shot clock. But it can’t erase that a good chunk of those possessions somehow end in threes that Harden makes look a lot easier than they are.
This game’s spotlight was shared by a few members of the Rockets supporting cast. This weird bunch of players fits together only because they were forced to. Houston’s full-on insistence on small ball has made them the worst rebounding team in the league, and even in a blowout, they still surrendered several offensive rebounds to the Thunder:
But does it really matter when you finally make the uncontested threes fans have been asking them to make for the entire season?
The non-Harden Rockets, from a box score perspective, made 14 of their 39 three-point attempts (35.9%). Admittedly, that number doesn’t look all that impressive, but think about it this way: they made enough threes to force OKC to consistently cover them, which opened up the rest of the court for easy buckets like this one.
Thanks to the efforts of guys like P.J. Tucker (3-for-8), Ben McLemore (4-for-7), and Jeff Green (3-for-7), the Rockets finally started punishing their opponents somewhat for leaving them so open from three. Because of that, it opened up drives to the rim that OKC wasn’t able to stop consistently. The Rockets went 17-for-22 at the rim, one of their most efficient efforts of the season and tied for their fourth-best output against a playoff team. It wasn’t all Harden, either: Jeff Green went 3-for-3, Eric Gordon 4-for-7, Danuel House 3-for-4. When the Rockets have nights like this, you finally understand why so many (AKA, the guy writing this post) believed they could get the 1 seed in the West last summer.
For Oklahoma City, this is obviously a very disappointing result. Thunder fans had every right to anticipate a victory, especially with no Westbrook and especially with how frustrating the Rockets viewing experience can be. They knew they’d have a defined edge on the boards, and across the full season, it was the Thunder who possessed the better offensive turnover rate. Theoretically, you could survive a less-than-ideal shooting day if you won those two things.
As mentioned earlier, the Thunder won the boards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Chris Paul, in particular, had a couple of really uncharacteristic turnovers that seemed to sum up the whole night:
To add to that, the league’s best mid-range shooting offense suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket from their favorite spot. Oklahoma City shot 7-for-21 from mid-range, including a horrific 3-for-13 output on shorter mid-range twos (5-14 feet, roughly). This was driven largely by Houston’s defense, who made a bunch of these mid-range misses very tough:
And generally made it hard for OKC to convert the type of shots they loved converting over the course of the last ten months:
Obviously, if the Thunder are going to have this poor of a night from their most-beneficial spot on the court, this series is going to be a lot shorter than most expected. FiveThirtyEight gives Houston roughly a 34% chance of sweeping OKC; while I think that’s pretty aggressive (personally, I’d have that more in the 20% range), it should be alarming to anyone hoping the Thunder wins this series, especially when Westbrook is out. If they can’t hit these shots now, I don’t think it’s going to be easier at all when RW returns to the court. Better wake up before it’s too late.