“The game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.” – Omar Little
Final Score: Thunder 117, Rockets 105
Points: Durant with 32, Kevin Martin with 22
Rebounds: Sefolosha with 9, Luis Scola with 5
Assists: Green, Westbrook with 5, Battier with 6
Why lead off a game recap with a quote by Omar Little from “The Wire?” Because it’s Omar Little from “The Wire.”
Seriously though, there was a moment in the game (87 seconds to be exact) that took me back to Game 6 against the Celtics, and it made me think of that quote. Let’s take a look at how we got to that point.
The opening half of the game began as many have: with the Thunder opponent surging forward quickly, getting lots of open looks, and utilizing their offense at will. After a quarter of play, the Thunder had given up 31 points to the Rockets. Perhaps I’m just looking at the game differently these days than I have in the past and this initial quarter is merely part of the ebb and flow of the game. I do know that I rarely see what you’d call a definitive defensive stop by the Thunder in the first quarter; either a blocked shot, a steal, or a 24 second shot clock violation. From a competitive standpoint, it keeps my stomach in knots; from an entertainment standpoint, it’s pretty breathtaking to watch two teams flying up and down the court getting open looks and finishing well.
Thankfully, for the Thunder’s benefit as well as ours, they have established a consistent way to curtail this initial offensive flow. Repeatedly we’ve seen that the Thunder have the ability to clamp down on defense once that initial quarter is over, and last night was no different. The opening quarter of 31 was the high watermark for the Rockets; they scored 25 and 20 in the next two, when the game was essentially decided. To this feat, much credit goes to the coaching staff for recognizing the changes that need to be made and then implementing them, and also (and this is subtle) for the players to WANT to change. Typically, if the offense is working, the player thinks that the fruits of their labor shall continue to abound, and they never readjust themselves to play better defense. As we’ve seen from the Thunder though, they improve as the game goes on, making adjustments on the fly.
By halftime, the Thunder enjoyed a six point cushion, but for all intents and purposes the two teams had played practically even. Six points is two possessions in the NBA, and can be had in seconds. Here is where we stood:
- Rockets were shooting 50% from the field.
- Thunder were shooting 57.5%.
- Rockets had 13 assists on 20 baskets.
- The Thunder had 12 assists on 23 baskets.
In my mind, the 3rd quarter was marked by some sloppier play than in the first half. Once more, the two teams played basically even, with the Thunder never able to really pull away despite their breadth of talent and the home crowd behind them. What was most noticeable to me was that every time the Thunder got careless, the Rockets capitalized on it. If the Thunder rushed a shot early in the shot clock, the Rockets reversed it and scored on the other end. If the Thunder tried to press and run when there were poor odds, they missed the contested layup and the Rockets made them pay on the other end. It was quite similar to the first two games where, even though the Thunder were clearly the more talented team, the Rockets would not let them run away with it. As the quarter wound down, I wondered if this neck and neck competitiveness would carry us to the end or if one team would make a move.
Which brings us back to my initial quote.
Remember Game 6 against the Celtics? The game was played practically even between the two teams, save for six defining minutes of play. In those six minutes, the Celtics knew precisely when to make their surge and how to do it, and it wound up being the difference in the game. They played t he Thunder.
Against the Rockets, it was the Thunder’s turn to play the game.
There was one minute and 27 seconds left on the clock in the 3rd quarter, and the Thunder were up three (which meant the Rockets were winning the quarter up to this point). This is precisely what I said to myself (and to my wife sitting next to me, who quickly replied, “I don’t care, stop bothering me”):
I said, “This is the kind of moment when good teams go on mini-runs to change the balance of the game.”
(“I said I don’t care.” Duly noted, my Beloved)
- Green hits a shot off of a Collison assist.
- Maynor gets a steal at the top of the key, and kicks it out to Harden.
- Harden leads the break, ending in a Green dunk.
- Maynor gets another steal.
- Another pass to Green in scoring position leads to a foul and two Green free throws.
- Thunder play tight defense, leading to a rushed 25 foot 3-point miss by the Rockets.
- With a second left in the quarter, Maynor hits a fade-away 18 footer.
And just like that, the game had been played. Third quarter score: 87-76, the Rockets never got closer than that, and that was the ballgame. What made it even sweeter was the fact that both Durant and Westbrook were on the bench at the time; it was backups Maynor and Harden who led the surge, with Green getting six of the final eight in the quarter.
Some lessons, like the one from the Celtics, are hard to hear. But some lessons are worth hearing. We saw the product of that lesson learned against the Rockets.
Final random notes:
- Durant was at his most efficient last night. He had 32 off of only 18 shots, and nothing felt forced; everything came within the flow of the game. What this means is that Durant did a better job being active, moving, and taking turns setting people up and getting set up than he had all season.
- Westbrook’s final stats might seem a little pedestrian judged by the standards he has set for himself this year, but I assure you he played as effective a point-game as he has played all year. He only had five assists of his own, but through the control he exhibited over the offense, both actively and passively, he enabled five players to tally at least four assists. Good passing begets good passing. The fourth quarter turned into a highlight reel of good passing.
- I’m pretty sure everyone knew (including the Rockets) that Westbrook was holding back his offensive game by choice. You could see it on his face any time that he felt like he had to make a play, went and made the play, and then flashed a mischievous smirk that basically said, “I can do that whenever I want.”
- The trio of Maynor, Harden, and Jeff Green is morphing into a powerful second unit (kind of like I predicted) because Green gets to play primary scorer, Maynor sets him up, and Harden just goes out and makes plays, be they passing or scoring.
- It seems like such a silly thing, but that Harden Dunk meant something to young James. He looked so much more comfortable in the game last night, free to make plays as he saw fit. He ended up with 16 points and four assists, and looked completely at ease doing all of it.
- Final props to Sefolosha, who actually led the team in rebounding and had the iconic defensive play of the night – with 6:35 to go, he chased down Kevin Martin, who was going in for a breakaway dunk. Even though the game was more or less decided, Sefolosha did not give up on the play, but caught up to him and blocked the dunk as Sefolosha was actually fading away from the rim. Amazing play of equal parts hustle and athleticism.
Next Game: vs. the Sacramento Kings on Friday, 8PM EST