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The Universe Must Deliver A Rockets-Thunder Playoff Series

Illustration for article titled The Universe Must Deliver A Rockets-Thunder Playoff Series
Photo: Michael Wyke (AP)

The Oklahoma City Thunder handed the Houston Rockets just their 7th home loss of the season Saturday night, by the relatively low score of 108-102. The Rockets were without Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but that’s not supposed to matter much—the Rockets had all of Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela in the lineup, and this was just the third time this season that they’ve lost with those three players active. This was a great and crucial win for the Thunder.

So mighty do the Thunder appear after this great win, in fact, that you might forget just how precariously perched they are in the West’s playoff pack: entering the game, the Thunder were sitting at 45 wins, which is a total they had in common with four other Western Conference teams, including the conference’s 9th seed. The win earned them some breathing room, but only just a little—they’re now one game up on the Denver Nuggets, who are, for now, on the outside looking in. It was an upset win, and had it gone how it was supposed to go, the Thunder right now would be in immediate danger of not making the playoffs. Incredibly, just the three top seeds in the Western Conference have clinched playoff berths!


So how’d the Thunder do it? They finished the third quarter Saturday night down three points, and subsequently held the Rockets to 18 points in the fourth quarter to come from behind. They did it by bottling up and frustrating Houston’s two ball-dominant playmakers: James Harden and Chris Paul combined to shoot just 3-of-12 from the floor in the fourth quarter, including 1-of-6 from beyond the arc, with zero free throws. Harden and Paul combined for three turnovers in the final quarter; all three of them were live-ball turnovers; two of those led directly to transition points for OKC; the third one effectively ended the game by killing Houston’s final possession. OKC stepped up the ball-pressure and had success stringing Harden out towards the sidelines off of screens, and forcing the ball out of his hands, and the Rockets couldn’t come up with a counter in time.

It’s a strategy that becomes riskier to deploy the more shooters the Rockets have in uniform—if it’d been, say, Anderson and Gordon sliding to open spots along the arc instead of Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker, the result might’ve been different. And it’s worth noting that hedging and blitzing James Harden pick-and-rolls is exactly the opposite of the hang-all-the-way-back-under-the-basket strategy San Antonio unlocked to frustrate otherwise deadly Harden-Capela pick-and-rolls during last year’s playoffs. But the Thunder have length and defensive versatility that most other NBA defenses totally do not, even without Andre Roberson—this would be an enormously fun playoff series, is what I’m saying.

Real quick: I know there is tremendous skill and artistry to what James Harden and Chris Paul do with the ball to punish switches and abuse defenders, but I absolutely hate watching it, just as a television event, and I have such an impossibly hard time reminding myself that another long Harden dribble sequence followed by a contested step-back three isn’t actually a bad possession. It’s a good, high-value look for maybe the NBA’s greatest pure scorer! On the other hand, last night once again resurrected the question of just how the Rockets will counter when the vastly more locked-in and committed defenses of the playoffs all but remove those clumsy mismatches from the equation. The Thunder can’t remove them allthey’ve still got Carmelo Anthony, for crying out loud—but the success they had frustrating Paul and Harden in the clutch Saturday night is at least fascinating, if not downright troubling for Rockets fans.

What was especially weird about OKC’s success late in this one was exactly who was doing the stopping. Down the stretch it was Russell Westbrook, exactly no one’s idea of a defensive stopper, who was fighting over screens and sticking to Harden and pestering him into uncomfortable spots. Per Royce Young of ESPN:

But Westbrook, who infuriates some with his tantalizing but very inconsistent defensive ability, cranked it up. And when George checked back in after about a minute, Westbrook told him not to switch back. The reigning MVP was taking the expected MVP.

“When the game is on the line, I knew what needed to be done,” Westbrook said. “I told Paul and Corey [Brewer] to take somebody else. I got him.”

The Thunder have now won their season series against the Rockets, and are one of only two Western Conference playoff teams to have beaten the Rockets twice this season (the other is the Spurs). In their two wins, they’ve held James Harden to just 41 percent shooting from the floor, and 32 percent shooting from the arc; in Houston’s one win in the series, Harden still turned the ball over 10 times. For all of their strengths, the Rockets are still enormously dependent upon the isolation and pick-and-roll brilliance of two world-class playmakers; beating them in a series will mean facing down a lot of grueling isolations and limiting the damage from deep. That’s a lot to ask of any team, but if any team can feel pretty good about its chances, it’s the Thunder.

These two teams aren’t expected to meet in the opening round of the playoffs: the Rockets have secured the top seed, and the Thunder are currently 7th, with games left against the Miami Heat and the Memphis Grizzlies. But one way or another, it feels like this series, pitting last season’s MVP against this season’s presumptive MVP, just has to happen. No, it would not settle any stupid-ass basketblogging culture wars; what it would deliver would be a lot of bitchin’ basketball, and you can never have too much of that.

Staff Writer, Deadspin