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Who was that team?
I’m genuinely confused.
The Thunder last night looked nothing like the team that we’ve come to know and love. For most of the season, that could be interpreted as missing the masked man cheering on Houston’s sideline (a little too passionately for my liking) instead of scoring for them due to a strained quad muscle.
But I’m not talking about the difference in this OKC team now that Russell Westbrook wears Rockets red. This transformation is even more jarring and much more gruesome.
A team that typically flings the ball around like a hot Popovich potato seemed stuck in mud.
A team that normally attacks like a lion appeared apprehensive as a Jeremy Lamb.
A team that usually plays fast and furious as a Vin Diesel vehicle sputtered out of gas.
All the hallmark traits that have defined this Thunder team all season long magically disappeared in the Magic Kingdom. The effort, the fun, the fight, the hustle, the chemistry and all the other things you can’t measure in the box score, but have unquestionably made this OKC squad so successful and entertaining, had notably vanished. Watching the Thunder lose is never fun, but it felt so much worse because this wasn’t the Thunder we were watching.
And about that box score…
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder are both great players. There’s a reason the NBA consensus is that Shai is a future All Star and Schroder is the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year. But last night, the 2020 6MOY and 2022 All Star MVP were thoroughly outplayed by former beloved Thunder U member and NBA journeyman Jeff Green and Kings castoff Ben McLemore. Shai and Schroder took 20 shots and scored 15 points. Uncle Jeff and not Uncle Ben took 20 shots and scored 36 points.
I could fill this entire journal analyzing the Rockets’ 2-3 zone, sagging off of Thunder non-shooters so they could pack the paint and take away drives, and their lack of bigs being an issue for the Thunder’s pick and roll midrange game, or with the Thunder’s bad transition defense and the Thunder’s worse 3 point defense. But when your first and third leading scorers get outscored by 21 points by two middle of the pack bench players in a 15 point loss, there’s not much else to explain.
And since by now you’ve seen and read countless stories about how bad this loss was for OKC, including the first 400 words of this one, let’s pivot away from the pain and let me pump some sunshine into your day going into Game 2.
The first bit of good news is Green and McLemore aren’t likely to repeat those performances. And neither are Shai and Schroder. The Rockets as a team hit 20 3 pointers at a near 40% clip. They shot 34.5% from 3, below league average, for the season. Regression to the mean should be mean to the Rockets bench and should mean mammoth scoring from the Thunder stars.
Danilo Gallinari is a mismatch nightmare for the Rockets’ small ball. He scored 29 points on only 17 shots. Chris Paul had an awful first half and an awesome second half, resulting in a 20-10-9 near triple double. Bubble Bazley continues to be a thing, as the rookie hit 3 of 4 3 point attempts, scored 9 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in only 17 minutes.
The best news of all is Lu Dort is coming back soon. Billy Donovan tried throwing Terrance Ferguson, Dennis Schroder, and Andre Roberson at James Harden, all to varying degrees of un-success. Dort’s Thunder fan hype has exceeded his actual defense, but he’s still a positive defender, much better than the try-hard trio last night, and genuinely clamped The Beard earlier this season. Harden scored 37 points with relative ease in Game 1. If Dort even slows him down a bit and allows other Thunder defenders to stay home on their man, that alone is a game changer.
The best news of all part deux is the Thunder’s best lineup, despite that dreadful game, was still a positive. CP3-Schroder-SGA-Gallo-Adams had a +10.2 net rating in 8 minutes. CP3-Ferguson-SGA-Gallo-Adams had a +9.5 net rating in 9 minutes. The Thunder’s best, even not at their best, still outscored the Rockets. Now why those lineups only played 17 minutes combined is a question above my paygrade. But there’s hard evidence the potential is there to be better.
The Thunder weren’t the Thunder in Game 1. If they show up on Thursday, some random Rockets writer is going to be genuinely confused when he sits down to write his Game 2 journal.
- With the Lakers, Bucks and Thunder losing last night, all the serious title contenders start 0-1.
- I’d give all of Hamidou Diallo’s 15 minutes to Abdel Nader. The Rockets are perfectly happy to leave Diallo wide open to chunk 3’s and double down in the paint to defend Adams and any potential drives from CP3, Shai or Schroder. Nader’s 37.5% 3 point shooting won’t allow Houston to sag off the perimeter.
- Bazley and Muscala, bigs who combined to hit 4-5 3’s in Game 1, need more minutes.
- The Thunder missed Lu Dort more than the Rockets missed Russell Westbrook.
- Obviously Russ >>> Dort, but as far as which player’s absence was felt by their team more, I think the score tells the tale.
- As great as Harden was, the Rockets ran away with this game when he was on the bench.
- I’m all for the refs letting the teams play physically. But the Rockets basically WWE’ed Adams in the post. Just cause they’re small and he’s Aquaman doesn’t mean they can just suplex the guy.
- Adams had 17 points and 12 rebounds and was a relatively “good” -3 in 28 minutes. Given that his staying on the court was a big question mark coming into the series, that’s a win.
- Hey shout out to Terrance Ferguson. He’s been much maligned this season and was reamed on social media when it was announced he drew the start. But he hit 2-3 3 pointers and though he couldn’t contain Harden, the starters plus TFerg had a big positive net rating.
- Chris Paul’s postgame message to the young Thunder players: “Stay with it. One game at a time. Can’t get too high or too low.”
- Dennis Schroder: “It’s gonna be better tomorrow.” Thunder fans, it’s only a day away.
- Next up: Game 2 on Thursday during your office lunch break.