The Thunder were cooking. Cruising. Headed straight for their 33rd win of the season. They’d scored on seven straight possessions and moved out to an nine-point lead with 2:30 left.
And then something changed. James Harden stopped running the offense.
For a good stretch of the fourth, Harden was Oklahoma City’s point guard, running a beautiful pick-and-roll with Nazr Mohammed first, and then Kendrick Perkins. The Rockets had no answer for it as the Thunder completely diced and broke down the Houston defense. But as the game moved into the final two minutes, the Thunder went back to their traditional sets. Russell Westbrook re-assumed his point guarding duties and Harden went back to standing on the wing.
And the Rockets closed the game on a 13-4 run and snatched a game right out from under the Thunder. There have been home losses far more brutal than this, but I’m not sure I’ve had that shocked a feeling after Serge Ibaka’s putback dunk was blocked (or fouled) and the final buzzer sounded.
Said Scott Brooks as to why he went away from Harden: “They did a good job of changing it up. They were switching and putting the smaller guy on him .. and we decided to go with some of our late game plays we’ve had success with all year.”
Said Durant on if he’d like to see Harden have the ball more late: “That’s coach’s decision man. It’s not on me. It was working for us tonight. But you’ve got to ask coach that question.”
Brooks also placed more blame on the defensive breakdowns rather than the offensive ones. And he was right that it wasn’t just the offensive side of things that cost the Thunder this game. It was a breakdown on both ends. Two Houston layups and couple open 3s are really what sunk them. An 11-point lead with two minutes left should be enough to get you to the finish line whether you score or not. But it’s hard to ignore the breakdowns from Westbrook those final couple plays. He turned it over trying to do too much, then drew a foul on Goran Dragic, but lost his cool and picked up a silly technical, which gifted the Rockets a point. Then he turned it over again, which led to the Houston go-ahead 3.
The Harden-Perk pick-and-roll was working so well that Harden was actually running back down the floor with an expression of, “They can’t stop it!” on his face. It was obvious he had completely taken over the game, scoring nine points and dishing out assists while running the offense beautifully. But even as the Rockets edged closer, the Thunder chose not to run it, instead trusting the ball into the hands of Westbrook.
Now, I firmly believe in Russell Westbrook. Not gonna waver on that. He has won the Thunder a whole lot of games. But taking the ball out of Harden’s hands has proven to be catastrophic at times. It happened in Game 6 against Memphis last playoffs. Harden was working the pick-and-roll beautifully for a four-minute stretch and then the Thunder went back to their traditional sets.
Don’t get me wrong, those traditional sets have worked a whole lot this season. But in a situation like this, where Harden clearly had the game in the palm of his hands, why go away from him? I understand KD is your “closer” and Westbrook is your “point guard,” but sometimes you’ve just got to go by feel and flow. Brooks did that in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals leaving Westbrook on the bench in favor of Eric Maynor. And he should’ve done it tonight against the Rockets leaving the ball in Harden’s hands.
Brooks said he went away from Harden to go with their crunch time set, which I broke down here. I love the set, and it’s worked a lot in the past. I’d never advocate taking the ball out of KD’s hands, but again, you can’t argue with the results tonight. Makes you wonder if he’ll reconsider in the future. Harden running point down the stretch of a game isn’t an indictment of Westbrook as a point guard or some controversial move that means KD and Russ hate each other and can’t co-exist. It’s just smart basketball.
- Let’s talk about Ibaka’s putback for a second. I think he was fouled. But at that moment, you absolutely can’t expect to get that call. And it shouldn’t matter. When you’re as big, strong and powerful as Ibaka and you can jump and grab a small toy off the rim with your teeth, YOU DUNK THAT BALL. JUST DUNK IT. DUNK IT DUNK IT DUNK IT DUNK IT. No layups there. Finish with authority. Leave no doubt.
- Westbrook’s technical foul late in the fourth proved to be costly. Like the last game in Houston, the Thunder lost by a point and had a fourth quarter technical foul which the Rockets converted. In this situation, Westbrook just lost his head. Goran Dragic was annoying him, playing scrappy handsy defense and Westbrook had enough. The play that caused the outburst was really nothing, but Westbrook got hot and charged him.
- Westbrook was asked (by me, sadly) about what happened there with Dragic. He completely ignored the question. Acted as if I didn’t exist. Just stood and waited for the next question. Power move, I guess. But it’s hard not to look at that as an incredibly immature thing by Westbrook. Just say, “I lost my cool and I shouldn’t have.” Or, “Goran Dragic is a douche that falls down all the time.” Or, “He’s a fake tough guy.” I don’t care what you say, but be accountable for the moment. It was an important play. It wasn’t something we all could overlook. Those type of things are the reason Russ doesn’t make friends in the media and doesn’t have people running to defend him while KD can do no wrong. KD always says the right thing, no matter the situation. Russ — and I say this as someone that is a full-blooded Westbrook apologist that would take a bullet for the dude — chooses to make enemies. He carries that chip on his shoulder off the court and doesn’t do himself any favors in the court of public opinion. He might not care and more power to him if he doesn’t, but it’s not hard to just answer a question.
- Sometimes with Westbrook, I’m reminded of a part in Bill Simmons first book about how he didn’t want to go into locker rooms because he was afraid he might find out a player he loved is a dick. Russ isn’t, but sometimes, well, sometimes I wish I wasn’t in the locker room with him.
- The shame of this loss is that the Thunder had played an incredible first 10 minutes of the fourth. They had outscored the Rockets 31-16 at one point, with Westbrook and Durant only combining for three of those points. It was about to be Exhibit A as to why the Thunder aren’t just a two man team. And then they tried to turn into that two man team and blew an 11-point lead. I think there’s a lesson here.
- This should tell you something about how good the Thunder are though: I fight an inner battle almost nightly about who truly is the most important player. KD, obviously, but sometimes I think it secretly might be Westbrook. And then sometimes I think Harden is the hidden key to success.
- KD just about caused 19,000 heart attacks when he crashed down hard on the floor in the fourth. “I’m alright,” he said after the game. “Just a fall.”
- Westbrook’s runner in the fourth = awesome.
- Tough rookie sequence for Reggie Jackson in the fourth: He turned the ball over on a bad pass to Nick Collison, then on the following possession tried to atone by doing too much and taking a forced shot. Then he left his man open in transition and he drilled a 3.
- Back-to-back games Perk has had five assists. Maybe he should run the crunch time offense.
- As if he wasn’t swagging enough with his ridiculous beard, after Harden finished an and-1 early in the fourth, he actually flexed and looked at his muscles.
- Durant was asked if the team was getting a little bored with this season. “I think that’s a bad question. We all love playing the game. We all love winning. I don’t think anyone is getting bored playing basketball games.”
- I think Goran Dragic fell down roughly 400 times tonight.
- I like Chandler Parsons. A lot. He had 19 of his 21 in the first half and wasn’t going to back down from KD.
- The worst place in the world for the ball to go with the shot clock running out is Nick Collison. Not only does he often not realize it, but it takes him a solid four seconds to get his jumper off.
- I can’t tell how badly I wanted Collison to finish that one-handed dunk he tried in the second quarter. Would’ve been my favorite play ever, probably.
- Who was the pioneer behind starting lineups as we know them now? Smoke machines, lights off, screaming PA guy, all that. That guy should have a spot in the Hall of Fame.
- Scott Brooks said pregame that he calls the team’s film sessions the “Truth Box,” because you can’t hide from what it shows. He said a lot of players will claim they were in a spot or doing something but as he said, “That box doesn’t lie.” I have a feeling the Truth Box will be showing a lot tomorrow.
- Nazr Mohammed missed two dunks tonight. But he played probably his best game in a month with 10 points and six boards. Gonna shut me up for a little bit about Cole Aldrich.
- Major props to Bill Kennedy for not hitting Perk and Samuel Dalembert for double-techs in the third quarter as they tangled all the way up the floor. Kennedy just shook his head and told them to stop. Most officials would’ve called a weak double-tech.
- Westbrook was hit with one of the worst foul calls I’ve ever seen, a tripping foul on Dragic. It was incredibly clear that Dragic simply slipped, but ref Jeff Goble called Westbrook for the trip. Somehow, Russ kept cool and didn’t get a tech there.
- Your U.S. Cellular Dumb Question of the Night, via @chuckd918: “Can you explained what assist to turnover ratio means?”
- Brian Davis Line of the Night via @ThunderBDSays: “Those are the kind of falls that send shivers all the way up your legs and into your midsection.”
Next up: At Denver Thursday.