In the aftermath of the Rockets’ 115-111 Game 2 victory, it’s back to the drawing board for Billy Donovan and the Thunder. A lot of things went right, a lot of things went horrifically wrong, and a lot must change before Friday’s Game 3 in Oklahoma City. Here is a collection of thoughts from last night, in no particular order.
The Bench was Disgusting
With 2:20 remaining in the third quarter, Oklahoma City held a 12 point lead and all felt right in the world. Russell Westbrook was working on what appeared to be his Mona Lisa, James Harden was largely ineffective when not shooting free throws and the Thunder was controlling the tempo behind enemy lines. But because Westbrook is a human being that sometimes needs rest, all hell broke loose after his customary trip to the bench toward the end of the third quarter.
Houston immediately rattled off a 7-0 run in Westbrook’s absence, the crowd roared back into it and, worst of all, it just had that feeling. By the time Russ re-entered the game to start the fourth, everything was so discombobulated that OKC never fully recovered. This is obviously a 30,000 foot view of how it all went down, but that stretch was the back-breaker for OKC.
In the end, the Rockets bench outscored OKC’s 50-24, took a 10-9 rebound advantage, held a 6-3 assist advantage and did all of it while playing three reserves compared to the Thunder’s seven. OKC was +11 with Westbrook on the floor, an abysmal -15 with him on the bench and it was a magnified vision of what we’ve known all season — this Thunder team is not impressive when a certain snarling point guard is not on the floor. Last night was Exhibit A in his importance to every facet of the game.
If you’re looking for all of this in a nutshell, look no further:
Game 2 Bench +/-
Plus forty-one. Negative sixty-four. Ballgame.
I Don’t Understand the Rotation
On the list of things I don’t understand, the Thunder’s Game 2 rotation is near the top of the list. Billy Donovan went 12-deep on a night it was widely presumed he would shorten the bench, Taj Gibson only received 21 minutes and Kyle Singler received 10 minutes after wearing a suit for Game 1. Here is a list of the 12 players and their minutes with +/- in parenthesis:
- Westbrook: 41 (+11)
- Oladipo: 41 (+0)
- Roberson: 37 (-2)
- Adams: 27 (+18)
- Grant: 26 (-20)
- Gibson: 21 (+17)
- McDermott: 14 (-7)
- Singler: 10 (-4)
- Kanter: 8 (-9)
- Christon: 7 (-15)
- Abrines: 4 (-4)
- Sabonis: 2 (-5)
True to his word, Billy Donovan played very little Enes Kanter and Big Turkey responded with his lowest scoring effort since his first game back from injury on February 24. Alex Abrines saw his minutes drop from 20 in Game 1, to just 4 last night. Doug McDermott saw an additional 11 minutes, and contributed 11 points with the extra run. Semaj Christon watched his minutes get chopped in half.
What’s most puzzling to me is Taj Gibson and his 21 minutes — which was exactly what he received in Game 1. Barring an injury we aren’t aware of, Kanter’s demotion should result in more minutes for Taj, but that’s just not how it played out. And seeing as how he’s a rental for the rest of the season, it makes no sense at all to do anything but drive him until his wheels fall off. You’d obviously like to see more of a guy that finished at +17 in limited action.
Billy D. knows better than I, but this list should only be 8-9 guys long in Game 3. Sabonis and Singler shouldn’t sniff the court, and due to a redundancy in skill sets, I think you have to choose either McDermott or Abrines if you’re going to play either of them. I do like Christon in the 7-10 minute range, but I’m not going to offer up any sort of suggestion on what the rotation looks like on Friday night. My only advice to Donovan would be to do less.
Russ was Herculean Until He Wasn’t
I caught grief on Twitter for saying Westbrook “fell apart” in the fourth quarter, so let me rephrase myself: Russell Westbrook fell apart in the fourth quarter.
Look — I understand what was happening here. He played the entire quarter and 41 minutes total, was the only Thunder player on the floor capable of doing anything and ran himself directly into the dirt with his typical level of enthusiasm. I get that, I do. But just because he finished with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds — the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA Playoff history — doesn’t mean he’s beyond reproach.
Entering the fourth quarter, Russ was a cool 13/25 from the field and led OKC to an 89-86 lead behind 36 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds and 3 steals. Make no mistake, he was having an other-worldly night that was teetering on the edge of his greatest effort yet. In fact, known Westbrook-contrarian Bill Simmons even took notice:
I know there's a lot of time left but Westbrook is threatening to put together one of the all-time playoff games. Amazing even for him.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 20, 2017
But with Westbrook behind the wheel, the Thunder Bus came to a screeching halt in the fourth quarter. He shot 4/18 over the 12 minutes, failed to get anything down when it mattered most and walked off the court with a loss. I know, I know, he was tired/has no help/Victor Oladipo has been replaced by a body-double, but the fact of the matter is Russ must play at an extremely high level if the Thunder is going to have any measure of success. Shooting 4/18 in the fourth quarter will never get the job done, and I would have preferred he tried a different approach. After all, he said that is his job when accused of assist-hunting on April 7 in Phoenix:
“I mean, I was 6-for-25. [Expletive], I mean, what you want me to do? I wasn’t making the shots, so somebody else can help. My job is to see what’s going on and try to find guys that make some shots, and maybe we can get something going. But it wasn’t falling for me tonight.”
I’m not asking for perfection, just that he remain self-aware enough to know when his shot isn’t falling. Russell Westbrook did not lose the game for the Thunder, I just don’t think he made the adjustments necessary to win them the game, either.
Houston Has Stupid Firepower
James Harden went a pedestrian 7/17 from the field on his way to 35 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds, but it was his ability to get to the line that made the difference. When it came to outright firepower, Houston drew its juice from other sources — most notably the two-headed bench monster of Eric Gordon and Lou Williams.
Gordon logged 30 minutes, shot 8/14, 3/6 from downtown and finished with 22 points (+15). This was a massive step up from his 8 point effort in Game 1, and a death bell for the Thunder if it continues.
Williams also shot 8/14 from the field, went 3/4 from deep and chipped in 21 points of his own (+18). Like Gordon, it was a bounce back from Game 1, when he shot 3/11 from the field en route to 11 points.
Oklahoma City has to find something that works outside of Russell Westbrook, because sustained bench excellence for the Rockets would be certain doom if nothing changes. Gordon and Williams combining for 43 points, 16/28 shooting and a +33 is enough to keep you awake at night.
Russ Left Angry
In case you missed it, Westbrook was asked after the game about his 51 point, 13 assist, 10 rebound stat line. Angry Russ was still in full effect:
So there is that.
It keeps with his responses pretty much anytime the Thunder lose, but he went on to say a lot of things worth hearing. In regard to what went wrong in the fourth quarter, his teammates and how he needs to be more trusting, I thought his answers were right on the money.
“They brought three people, they was bringing three people and trapping, things of that nature. I thought I was able to get to the basket. Some tough calls we didn’t get down the stretch, and I got some shots, but you know me, I got to do a better job of finding my guys, trusting in them, especially late in games when things aren’t going my way. I’ll look at film and find ways to do that.”
Whether that brings about change, I’m not certain, but I agree with everything here. Getting more teammates involved down the stretch (especially in the midst of a 4/18 fourth quarter) will go a long way toward clawing back into the series. I hope that film session yields results.
Game 3: Rockets @ Thunder
Friday at 8:30PM CT on TNT & FSOK