The Houston Rockets won Game 5 over the Thunder tonight, shooting their way out of a handful of Russell Westbrook-induced holes and taking a close one, 105-99. Much like the entire series, the game was excruciating to watch and the Thunder’s brief flickers of life did little to stave off the feeling that they were inevitably going to break themselves trying in vain to stop the Rockets from getting to the line and teeing off on open threes. Houston won, as they should have, for they are the better team.
For a series headlined by the two biggest stars of the regular season, Thunder-Rockets was defined by the supporting casts. The Rockets were series favorites because they have more than one player who can score, yet the gradient between the two teams looked even more stark than many projected it would be. Andre Roberson was nigh unplayable for long stretches due to his crippling inability to make shots and Victor Oladipo proved unable to do much more than throw the ball to Russell Westbrook at the top of the key and miss the odd shot here and there if called upon. The less said about the Thunder’s heinous bench unit, the better (aside from this: Alex Abrines is delightful. He also should not be a playoff team’s sixth man right now.)
On the other side of the aisle, the Rockets played a bench backcourt of Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, both of whom can hit from three, handle the rock, and, crucially, helm the offense without it turning into a massive pile of shit. The Rockets’ 105 points tonight were their lowest of the series by a good deal, and they won thanks to Williams and Patrick Beverley as much as anyone else.
James Harden didn’t have a great game shooting but he doesn’t have to for the Rockets to win. As he is wont to do, he put roots down at the line and went 16-for-17. At one point, the officials called Harden out for his cynical electioneering for foul calls (where he wraps his defenders up while he has the ball), but he stayed on his bullshit and scored 34 despite making just eight shots.
Elsewhere, Nene got the better of Steven Adams all series long and Beverley did a truly admirable job on Westbrook. The road to Westbrook shooting 37.3 percent on 29.5 shots per game ran straight through Beverley. A combination of high pressure from Beverley, Ariza, or Gordon on top of a team effort to crash down on Westbrook on his drives worked out well for the Rockets, even if Russ got his. Russ always gets his regardless of the outcome.
To blame Westbrook’s occasionally jaw-dropping yet ultimately inefficient series on hardwired selfishness or hubris seems like a hollow criticism. The Rockets were the superior team, tip-to-tail, which is not something Russell Westbrook could have overcome, even though he scored oodles of points. The Thunder are a haphazardly constructed team that relies on Westbrook for so much, and when he shoots his team out of games, they only tend to ever be in those games in the first place because Westbrook shot them there. OKC was -18 in the six minutes were Russ sat and they only had a lead to lose because of his spectacular 20-point third quarter.
Towards the end of Game 5, when Westbrook was completely spent and his legs looked like pudding, the Thunder’s offense was a sad mess. He’d get to the rim but lack the oomph to dunk or score easily, watching as his shots clanked short. It did not help that OKC’s best non-guard scorer was unplayable because he’s a matador on defense.
In contrast, the Rockets only got better at the end of games. Houston was +50 in the five fourth quarters of this series, winning every single one by at least eight. This says as much about their depth as it does about James Harden’s individual brilliance. Mike D’Antoni has designed an ideal offense for Harden’s passing and shooting talents and Harden executes on it perfectly. Nobody else gets the kick-out pass out faster than Harden when a defense collapses. He’s got legions of shooters and he knows how to find them. Unfortunately, he also knows exactly how to get to the foul line, and Houston were suited for the ugly anti-basketball that swallowed up the end of Game 5. That’s primarily frustrating because Harden is such an exciting player on all the plays where he’s not fishing for fouls. I want to see him navigate the pick-and-roll, not play tug-of-war with Roberson’s arm.
Either way, the Rockets advanced out of a series they should have and the Thunder’s very loud season ended with a whimper. It was ugly and it turned out like it was supposed to. Russell Westbrook went down swinging and James Harden will (probably) get a shot at Kawhi Leonard as his reward.