Before the opening tip, I turned to Travis Singleton of SneakerReporter.com and said, “There’s a nervousness in the atmosphere today.” The crowd wasn’t as loud at the tip, and you could sense they knew this was going to be a long game. Well, that turned out be prophetic as the game was almost a carbon-copy of Game 2, except this time, the crowd was left groaning at the end instead of cheering.
There have been two guarantees in this series: First, the Oklahoma City Thunder will, at some point, hold a sizable lead in the first half. Secondly, the Thunder will eventually lose said lead when Russell Westbrook parks his derriere on the bench for a breather. Both things happened today, with the latter being a big reason why the Thunder lost.
The first half was prime Russell Westbrook. So prime, in fact, that he registered a first half triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists on 5/11 shooting and 7/7 from the free throw line. As has been the case all series long, as soon as Westbrook sat, whatever lead the Thunder had, dissipated.
At one point in the first quarter, the Thunder held an 11 point lead. Steven Adams was playing great basketball, chipping in 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 block shots. Then Westbrook sat down 2:21 left in the period. From that point on, the Houston Rockets outscored the Thunder by 7 points to head into the second quarter only down by 4. When Westbrook returned at the 9:48 mark of the 2nd quarter, the Thunder lead had shrunk by one to just 3 points. The rest of the first half was a back and forth affair and the Thunder headed into the half up 58-54.
One note from the first half: Andre Roberson was absolutely terrific on the defensive end. If there was an equivalent of a no-hitter in defensive basketball, Roberson was definitely pitching that in the first half. He stayed with James Harden on his drives and made the right reads on the perimeter to stifle not just Harden’s jump-shot, but also his play-making. Roberson finished the first half with 5 blocks and one steal. Harden, on the other hand, shot 2/9 from the field (0/3 from three) to finish with 6 points and 3 assists.
Another note from the first half: With Harden stifled, the Rockets once again leaned on their bench for production. The bench trio of Nene, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams led the way with 29 first half points to pace the starters who only had 25 points between them.
The third quarter became a game of runs. The Thunder started the quarter on a 10-2 run to go up by 12. They were dominating the Rockets inside, rendering Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela unplayable. Rockets’ head coach Mike D’Antoni countered by putting Nene and Gordon into the game. That balanced Houston out and they went on a 10-0 run over the next four minutes, to find themselves down by just 2 points with 5 minutes left in the quarter. It was back and forth affair from there and the Thunder headed into the final quarter up by four, after both teams scored 19 points in the 3rd quarter.
Of note, Westbrook went to the bench with 2:28 left in the 3rd and the Thunder up by 7. When he returned with 9:42 left in the fourth, the Thunder were down by 3. Let that sink in: The Thunder were a -18 when Westbrook was on the bench in the game. We’ll bring that thought back up later when we talk about what happened on the podium.
With Westbrook back in the game, the Thunder and Rockets traded baskets for the next 5 minutes. With the Rockets up by 3 and in the penalty, they decided to play the Hack-A-Roberson strategy. Roberson, who at that point hadn’t made a free throw yet in the series (0/9), stepped up to the line and calmly missed both free throws. This strategy continued for the next minute, and Roberson went 2/8 from the free throw line during that time. Luckily, the strategy seemed to throw the Rockets off their rhythm a bit and they didn’t gain anything on the scoreboard by the time Thunder head coach Billy Donovan swapped Jerami Grant in for Roberson. When Roberson returned at the 2:01 mark of the fourth, the Thunder were down by 2.
Fast forward to the 30 second left in fourth. The Thunder are down by 5 and Westbrook puts up an ill-advised three in which he was trying to get a foul call. Harden grabs the rebound and heads down court, but turns the ball over. It ends up in Adams’ hands and he immediately gets fouled by Nene. He sinks the first and then intentionally misses the second, tapping it back to Westbrook for a straight-on three. 108-107, Houston is up with 18 seconds.
Instead of intentionally fouling, the Thunder tried to trap Houston in the back court. The ball eventually made its way into the front court, where Trevor Ariza found a wide-open Nene for a dunk. That, in of itself, is almost forgivable, as the Thunder would have been down 3 with 11 seconds to go. What wasn’t forgivable was the fact Jerami Grant decided to grab Nene as he was going up to give him an and-1. Nene calmly sank the free throw and that was basically the ball game.
- After an amazing first half, Westbrook had a pedestrian 2nd half. First half – 17/10/10 on 5/11 shooting and 1 turnover. Second half – 18/4/4 on 5/17 shooting and 4 turnovers. Much of the blame will fall on the bench and on Roberson’s free throw shooting, but Houston did a good job of containing Westbrook in that 2nd half.
- Westbrook joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to ever produce three playoff triple-doubles in a row.
- The Rockets’ bench outscored the Thunder’s 64-22.
- Norris Cole played a very forgettable game. Nine minutes, 0/3 shooting, 2 turnovers, and a -18. Hey, just remembered when Westbrook sat, the Thunder were a -18. Coincidence?
- On that note, Donovan was asked postgame why he never uses Victor Oladipo as a back-up point guard, in light of the struggles of Cole and Semaj Christon. His answer: “Just because we’ve used Semaj and Norris. Those guys have been out back-up point guards. It’s kind of what we’ve done most of the year. So, just kind of went with that.” Billy Donovan did not bring his A game to the podium today.
- When Russell Westbrook was asked by Berry Tramel about the difference on the product on the court when he is off it, this is what happened:
Intense moment as Berry Tramel opens with a question about the disparity of Westbrook’s on/off. Here’s Russ’ response. pic.twitter.com/N1Byr5ZkUq
— Alex Roig (@AlexRoig_DT) April 23, 2017
- And this is the aftermath from it. You can tell Westbrook was clearly bothered by the question. But, in reality, it’s a valid question.
And Tramel trying to get the same question in as Westbrook says, “Next question” pic.twitter.com/TQxQcV2GeM
— Alex Roig (@AlexRoig_DT) April 23, 2017
Next Up: Game 5 in Houston on Tuesday at 7:00 pm CST