Harden torches the Thunder as OKC collapses, 122-119

BOX SCORE

For the first time ever, the beard was feared by the Thunder.

James Harden’s first two games playing against his old mates: 42 total points on 9-of-33 shooting. Tonight? A career-high 46 on 14-of-19, including 7-of-8 from 3. Sixteen of those points coming in furious fourth quarter comeback that erased a 14-point Thunder lead with seven minutes left and ended in a frustrating 122-119 loss to Houston.

Which is also a third consecutive defeat for Oklahoma City, something that hasn’t happened this season.

Harden was unbelievably brilliant in scorching the team that scorned him, showing off that special skillset that allows him to just explode on any given night. The first two meetings against OKC, the Thunder held his head in the toilet, swarming him in pick-and-roll situations, contesting his jumpers and basically turning him into a very one-dimensional player. He either had to hope for a whistle, or finish in heavy traffic.

Tonight, he cut loose. He played with a lot more swagger, confidence and freedom. It was a virtuoso effort from a truly wonderful player. And yeah, obviously there’s a revenge angle here and you can look at this as an Eff You Game by Harden, but that’s conveniently ignoring the fact he was so, so bad in the first two meetings. You can’t expect to hold a player of Harden’s caliber down for that long. And with the Thunder missing Kendrick Perkins — yes, that definitely mattered — OKC couldn’t keep Houston from scoring.

Harden’s performance was awesome and also for the first time in the three games, Jeremy Lin did something (29 on 12-22). But what makes this loss feel even more devastating for the Thunder is the fact the Rockets traded half their team before tip-off and were playing extremely shorthanded. The Thunder weathered a super hot shooting start from Houston and eventually took complete control of the game and seemed to be cruising.

The first 40 minutes or so were ideal Thunder offensive execution. Swift, crisp passing that led to 25 assists. But for the final eight minutes, OKC didn’t record a single helper. Now, that’s a problem, yes. I agree entirely. But at the same time, there’s a reason that kind of stuff happens. I believe in the open man as much as anyone, but on a few possessions Thunder role players were set up and had opportunities. Ibaka either airballed or had a 12-footer blocked. Thabo clanged a wide corner 3. And a hefty number of turnovers trying to force those extra passes.

The open man is the right play, but how did the Rockets come back and top OKC? Because Harden and Lin went off. It wasn’t their ball movement, their spacing. It was those two guys making plays. OKC’s top dogs didn’t. That seems like an oversimplification, but that’s really what it was.

But it wasn’t the offense that sunk OKC tonight. It was the brutal defensive collapse. The Rockets scored 25 points the final six minutes of the game. That’s part Thunder, but a lot of that really is a credit to the Rockets because they just poured in a flurry of long jumpers. Look at their final 21 points — three 3s, two jumpers. They were hot early, and hot late. Scott Brooks could see it coming too. After a runout dunk by Greg Smith with four minutes remaining cut it to eight, Brooks called a timeout and stormed out on the floor much more animated than usual. He could see this coming. His team had relaxed and left the door open.

The Thunder had an improbable chance to tie though. After a forced Westbrook 3 swished through and Lin made one of two from the free throw line, Durant drew a foul with 20 seconds left. He made the first and unintentionally missed the second, but Westbrook gathered it. With the Thunder clearly scrambled and frantic, with a timeout in hand, the Thunder played out the possession which ended in a forced 3 from Durant that just rimmed out.

Why hold on to the timeout there? It was clear the Thunder were panicked after rebounded the miss. With 20 seconds left, they needed to regroup. You could see the forced 3 coming as soon as Westbrook kicked out, but really, they needed a reset. A quick two would’ve been a wiser play, or even something where they caught their breath and ran a set for 3. A lot of times you can get a great look off a scramble like that, but Durant was hemmed in a bit on the sideline and was dead set on firing. Brooks really should’ve stopped it all before it happened and regathered his team’s heads.

It’s a shame too. The loss spoils a career night from Thabo Sefolosha (28 points on 11-16 shooting, 6-10 from 3), the second career triple-double from KD (16 points, a career-high 11 assists and 12 rebounds), and a near triple-double from Westbrook (28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists). The Thunder had it. They played wonderfully as a team, dicing up an overmatched Rockets squad. But you leave the door ajar for a guy like Harden, and he’ll hurt you.

The Thunder should’ve known that better than anyone.

NOTES:

  • The Rockets started this game 8-10 from 3. Then they missed 10 straight from 3. They finished 15-33 from 3.
  • Durant had a triple-double, but he also had an oddly poor game. He went just 4-13 from the field and turned it over five times. I like Distributing Durant, but scoring Durant was needed in those last three minutes.
  • Westbrook played a very good game as well, outside of the seven turnovers. Which weren’t good.
  • Without Perk, Hasheem Thabeet got the start. He basically only played the quarters he started, the first and third, totaling just 11 minutes. That’s called pulling a Andris Biedrins.
  • Nick Collison seemed to be set for big minutes, except he pulled a Thabeet and fouled out in just 17 minutes. His absence the last eight minutes was obvious. He was a game-high +12 in just those 17 minutes.
  • Say what you will about Perk too, but he certainly would’ve been of help in defending the pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter.
  • Serge Ibaka was better tonight (16 points, seven rebounds, five blocks), but it still didn’t feel like he really put a stamp on anything late in the game.
  • Says here Kevin Martin scored 15 points. I honestly can’t think of any of them off the top of my head.
  • Likely because of Perk’s absence, Perry Jones III got some first half burn, playing seven consecutive minutes. And I was really encouraged with the way he performed. He was active and involved, using his supreme athleticism to fly around and make things happen. He wasn’t really much of an offensive threat, but I liked the look of the Durant, Jones, Ibaka frontcourt. I’d love to see more of it.
  • Reggie Jackson continues to build on strong recent performances. Six points and an assist in 15 minutes. And that assist came on one ankle. After rolling his ankle on defense, Jackson then led a fastbreak on it for an easy dunk. And then limped off the floor.
  • Watching Jeremy Lin try to check Westbrook — or even Jackson — was rough. He simply couldn’t stay in front of them to save his life. He made up for it though.
  • Remember how I made some statement after the last Thunder-Rockets game about how Harden was kind of an average scorer without the free throw line? Boy, that looks stupid.
  • Scott Brooks must’ve traded his hair gel for a hair product to be named later before the game.
  • The Rockets run so much drive and kick. It’s almost like a weird three-man weave where guys take turns penetrating and kicking out and if the shots not there, they drive and kick to the other side. When you’ve got shooters, that’s tough to defend.
  • Obligatory mention of how good the home whites look with black shoes.
  • It’s really amazing how many people came running out of nowhere to proclaim the Thunder messed up by letting Harden go, or that they should’ve traded Westbrook. Again, he was AWESOME tonight. And has been awesome pretty much the whole season. But there’s a real selective memory thing going on here with Harden. People love to single out the big nights and conveniently ignore the tough ones, like the first two games this season against OKC.
  • The Thunder had one three-game losing streak last season, dropping straight games to Memphis, Miami and Indiana.
  • Deadline tomorrow. My suggestion: Trade and get that Harden guy back. He seems pretty good.
  • Brian Davis Line of the Night: “Look out below! Durant high-stepping that one like Walter Payton!”

Next up: Home against the Timberwolves Friday.

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