There were a couple time where Game 3 was beginning to mirror Game 2. In the second half, the Oklahoma City Thunder just couldn’t shake the Houston Rockets and those same doubts that crept up from Game 2 started to rear their ugly heads again. The missed shots, the inability to defend the perimeter, the propensity to stick their hands in the cookie jar when the Rockets were at the 3-point line. But unlike Game 2, the Thunder kept on responding and the clock eventually ran out on the Rockets. Here are a couple thoughts from Game 3.
Andre Roberson – We Are Not Worthy
There are some players that are just made to match-up against other players. They are the eastern coast of South America to the other player’s western coast of Africa. That’s what Andre Roberson is to James Harden. And even though Harden got the scoring numbers tonight with 44 points, the rest of his game suffered. He was inefficient from deep, shooting 4-12 from three, and only got 6 assists to go along with 7 turnovers. He was 18-18 from the free throw line, but sometimes, with the Rockets, two free throws is a lot less dangerous than the possibility of a 3. Sometimes when you are dealing with a 5-tool player like Harden, making him use just one or two of his tools while neglecting the rest is a victory in of itself.
The Thunder had a great game plan for Harden, and Roberson was the head of the snake in that plan. He stayed with Harden while battling screens the entire evening, and then stayed with the roll/pop man when the defense called for a switch.
In addition, he continues to be a threat on the offensive end, scoring 12 points on 2-3 from deep. But it wasn’t just the scoring in this game. This was probably the most complete game I’ve ever seen from Roberson. On the evening, he also had 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. The fact that he is not only threatening to score, but also facilitating, keeps the Houston defense honest. And that, in turn, gives Westbrook a little more room to breathe.
Hello, The Bench
After two games in which the Thunder bench was basically non-existant, the Thunder reserves came out tonight and played themselves into relevancy again. The Thunder reserves were outscored 54-88 in the two games in Houston, giving credence to the saying, “the bench doesn’t travel”.
This game was a much different story. The biggest change was going from Semaj Christon to Norris Cole at back-up point guard. Christon was inactive tonight, which gave Cole the opportunity to show his chops with the second unit. While Cole’s stat line wasn’t anything eye-popping (5 points and 1 assist in 9:30 minutes), the change of pace in point guard styles energized the second unit. Whereas Christon is a very conservative point guard (not taking risks, making the safe pass), Cole is more of an attacker. First possession on the floor, and Cole hit a 3-pointer. Houston’s defense had to pay attention to Cole, and that kept one less defender from buzzing around in the paint.
This allowed Enes Kanter to finally have his first good game of the series. Kanter can play at times in this series. It just has to be at the right times and with the right personnel. Christon’s non-attacking nature coupled with his inability to hit outside shots meant that his defender could play free safety and become a nuisance either in the paint or in the passing lanes. Kanter finished the night with 10 points and 2 rebounds on 4-8 shooting.
Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott, on the other hand, played many of their minutes with Russell Westbrook, acting as floor spacers for the MVP candidate. With those two on the floor, the Rockets had to respect them and the paint became Westbrook’s playground. When given the opportunity, both Abrines and McDermott knocked down their shots, as they both finished with two 3-pointers apiece.
In the end, the Thunder reserves were able to keep up with the Houston reserves 38-35, and that proved to be a big factor in the Thunder’s victory.
Taj Gibson – More Minutes, More Production
After averaging just 21 minutes per game in the first two games of the series, Taj Gibson finally saw extended minutes and the results were amazing. The veteran power forward took advantage of his match-up with Ryan Anderson and bullied his way to 20 points on 10-13 shooting. He was Westbrook’s main target tonight and took advantage of the defense’s over-attentiveness to Westbrook.
But where Gibson truly made his mark tonight was on the defensive end. Playing a lot as a small ball center in this game, Gibson was able to switch onto Harden and keep him at bay. And when Harden passed it Anderson, Gibson was usually able to recover. Even though Anderson had his best scoring output of the series with 18 points, he went just 2-7 from deep and made a lot of contested, mid-range fade-aways.
There were possessions where Gibson completely blew up the pick and roll and made Houston’s offensive game plan that much more difficult to execute. This is part of the reason why Oklahoma City picked up Gibson and he paid dividends in this game.
Surviving The Runs
Houston is just one of those teams. In the first half, it felt like the Thunder were clicking on all cylinders. Then you look at the scoreboard, and the Thunder are only up 10. If the Thunder play this way against a normal team, they head into the halftime break up 15-20 points. But with Houston, and their ability to shoot 3’s, no lead is ever safe.
Then the second half started, and the Rockets used a 9-0 run to take their first lead of the game. Thankfully the Thunder responded with a run of their own, and were up by 7-10 points the rest of the third quarter. Then, with Westbrook on the bench, the Rockets went on a 7-0 run to begin the 4th quarter to bring the Rockets within 3.
At this point it was beginning to feel like Game 2 again. But the Thunder once again weathered the storm and found themselves up between 5-7 points for most of the 4th quarter. Then Houston made one final push, bringing the game within 2-3 points several times in the closing two minutes of the game. But the Thunder did just enough to score the necessary points and hold off Houston to win by two in the end.
Houston can score. But they can also give up a ton of points. The Thunder need to take advantage of this fact and not just focus on the defensive side of the ball. Tonight, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan did a great job of putting offensively minded players on the floor to help not just combat the runs, but also score points to put together another lead.
Billy Donovan – Professional Playoff Coach
It started with the decision to deactivate Christon. I have nothing against Christon, but it was clear the second unit needed a more offensively minded option to get them out of their rut. Enter Cole who kept pressure on Houston when he was in the game.
Next, we once again saw very unique rotations for the third straight game in this series. This rotation had Gibson at the 5, Roberson at the 4 (guarding the 2-guard Harden), Abrines and McDermott on the wings, and Westbrook at point. The Thunder were able to constantly get into the lane with this line-up and score at will.
One of the major differences between Donovan and former head coach Scott Brooks is Donovan’s propensity for trying out new line-ups at various times. Especially in a series, Donovan will put out completely different line-ups from game to game. While this can disrupt chemistry due to lack of playing time with certain line-ups, it also keeps the opponent off-balance.
Over the last 3 games, the Rockets have seen line-ups that feature Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together. Line-ups that feature Russell Westbrook and Norris Cole together. And other strange “why the hell is he putting these 5 guys on the floor together” line-ups.
But there’s definitely a method to Donovan’s madness. And this small-ball line-up of Gibson, Roberson, Abrines, McDermott, and Westbrook may prove to be the kryptonite to Houston’s defense. Or Donovan could just go completely mad scientist and play something like Westbrook, Cole, Christon, Roberson, and Kanter in the next game. There’s no telling with Donovan, and that can become a strength for a coach in the playoffs.
The Thunder finally got one in the books. If there is anything that has become clear, it’s that when you play the Rockets, you have to play a full 48 minutes. I believe the Thunder now know that and will be ready to play from here on out in the series.
Game 4 will be Sunday at 2:30 pm CST at the ‘Peake.