Wake Up Call: How OKC Beat the Rockets, and Can Again

After Sunday night’s disappointing Game 1, a lot of questions were raised. Most were laced with doubt, such as “how do we stop James Harden?” or “how much can we expect from Victor Oladipo?” and even “can we play Enes Kanter at all?”

It’s easy to overreact after one game, but the Rockets certainly looked like the superior team. The questions were legitimate, and for answers, we must return to November 16th — the date of Oklahoma City’s only victory over Houston this season.

Sure, there’s plenty of reasons to discount the importance of an early-season game. It was five months ago. It was just the eleventh game for a new Rockets coaching staff and James Harden’s eleventh game as a starting point guard. It was also the Thunder’s twelfth game adjusting to life without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.

But it shouldn’t be totally discounted.

One thing history has taught us is that Mike D’Antoni isn’t prone to make a ton of adjustments, yet his system has stayed relatively untouched for the entire season. On the other side, we know the Thunder haven’t changed their Westbrook= Superman routine all year. Most of the major pieces were there, as both teams still have their top 6 minutes leaders from that game. Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and Lou Williams were the only missing pieces.

And the Thunder won, 105-103. Let’s look at how it happened.

Victor Oladipo went off. A season-high 29 points for Oladipo has to be listed first and foremost. In order to beat Houston you have to score a ton of points, a task that is normally not difficult considering the Rockets yielded 109.6 points per game on average in the regular season. Westbrook’s 30 points were essentially par for the course, someone else has to step up.

If you look at the Rockets’ wing defenders, outside of Patrick Beverley, you won’t find many defensive juggernauts. Harden? Eric Gordon? Lou Williams? Not only is that the softest spot in an already soft defense, but Oladipo is the most obvious candidate to carry an offensive load with his ability to create off the bounce (theoretically). We sure didn’t see it in Game 1, but the recipe for success is there and I expect a breakout performance in either Game 2 or 3.

For all of you out there who have been screaming for less of Semaj Christon and Norris Cole minutes, look no further. If Oladipo plays well, coach Billy Donovan has shown he’s definitely willing to stretch his minutes. In the November 16 game, he played 40 minutes, compared to just 32 in Game 1 of this series. Good Oladipo means less need for those backup guards to play.

Let’s not forget the way in which Oladipo scored those points, going 5/7 from three-point range. It’s so important that it deserves it’s own bullet point (great segue, Matt!).

The Thunder hit 12 threes. As I’ve discussed previously, the most crucial offensive key as a team is the ability to spread the floor. Since Houston doesn’t have many great on-ball defenders, they rely heavily on their ability to collapse the paint with help defenders, which they were able to do with impunity in Sunday’s Game 1.

But with Oladipo bringing the rain, plus two deep balls from Alex Abrines, and hell even Jerami Grant hit a pair of triples in this game, it changes the dynamic. Suddenly the lanes to penetrate for Westbrook and Oladipo are gaping. They certainly took advantage.

Patrick Beverley didn’t play. Yeah, I know. Kind of a big deal. But guys, he still managed to get into an altercation with Andre Roberson from the sidelines! Public Enemy No. 1, and it’s not even close.

(0:18-0:30 marks of this highlight video)

Later in the season, Roberson would pin his stuff against the backboard and then give him a Mutombo finger wag, so it all evens out.

Andre Roberson locked up James Harden. When he wasn’t busy being pestered by the villain Beverley, Roberson was playing some of his best defense of the season on future MVP-runner-up (*cough*) James Harden. The Beard was held to 4/16 shooting and just 13 points, his second lowest point total of the season.

It’s important to note here, as a follow up to yesterday’s column, that the Thunder spent a large portion of this game double teaming and hard hedging on Harden’s high ball screens, as opposed to straight switching or sagging as they did in Game 1. In forcing other Rockets players to beat them, they limited Harden’s production. And yes, as expected Houston went crazy from three with 40 attempts, making 14 of them. But bottom line, the supporting cast couldn’t get it done.

The pace of the game was fast. Contrary to what some may think, the Thunder are capable of playing with Houston in an up-tempo style. Houston had 108 possessions to the Thunder’s 100 in a game that was fast and sloppy for the most part (16 turnovers each).

I would argue that the Thunder should play at this fast pace in Game 2, simply because of the possibility of creating easier field goal attempts. The more the offense is stagnant, the more Westbrook 1-on-5 isolation possessions we’re likely to see.

The Thunder were out-rebounded. One of the biggest complaints coming out of Game 1 was the Thunder getting beaten up on the glass, with a -15 rebounding margin. Though the Thunder were the best rebounding team in NBA this season, they actually were out-rebounded on November 16 as well, 47-44. That gap is substantially slimmer, but the truth stands that the Thunder don’t need to dominate the boards in order to win.

It’s important to take into account the Rocket’s playing style, which includes spacing big men out to the three point line and shooting a ton of attempts from deep. That leads to long rebounds, and times where OKC’s big men are either out guarding away from the basket or being replaced for smaller players who may be more dynamic but aren’t as effective rebounding.

From a rotation standpoint, Enes Kanter only played 15 minutes in this game, most of which came with Harden off the floor. Domantas Sabonis played 28 minutes, which is unlikely to happen in this series, and Grant saw 19 minutes. While this affected rebounding, the advantages of having each of those more nimble big men paid dividends and should be considered heading into tonight’s contest.

With the game on the line, the Thunder had Russell Westbrook. Oh yeah, did you forget about this game, this play? After supposedly telling Oladipo before the game that he was going to get a left-handed dunk at some point, Westbrook got the ball with 7.1 seconds left off an inbounds pass and did…this. In the wise words of the prophet Akon, I’m trying to find the words to describe this [dunk] without being disrespectful.

So to quickly recap, all we need for a Thunder victory in Game 2: 25+ points from Victor Oladipo, 12+ three pointers to space the floor, Patrick the villain Beverley to mysteriously not play, hold James Harden to 13 or fewer points, and Russell Westbrook to cap off the game with one of the most electrifying dunks in NBA history.

Seems easy enough, right?