From the moment the 2012-2013 NBA schedule came out this was always going to be a tough one for the Rockets. The type of game that coaches often call a "schedule loss". That is, a game that you can basically pencil in the "L" upon seeing the schedule due to the opponent, the travel, or a back-to-back, or all of the above.
And then something unimaginably worse than a potential schedule loss happened - the untimely and heart-wrenching death of coach Kevin McHale's 23 year old daughter Sasha. If this was a sports movie, the Rockets would dig deep, search their hearts, look good making impossible shots in slow-mo, and somehow find a way to win. The Movie Rockets would turn into a well-paid Hickory High. They'd shoot the lights out and gouge out a tough emotional win for their coach, and for their self-respect against a very strong Thunder team.
What could the actual Houston Rockets expect to face tonight? Besides a relatively rested Thunder, the best team in the West, they'd be up against a narrative entirely different from their own. They'd face a pumped up Thunder team eager to send a message to The Beard. Lots of Thunder players might even have an extra script for James Harden and the Rockets.
Kevin Durant might have a point to make about James Harden posing a slight threat to his scoring crown. Russell Westbrook might want to defuse the criticism of his max deal. Defuse criticism of his decision making. Most especially Westbrook might wish to deflect a growing unease that he's a supremely talented player, but not, perhaps, a point guard at heart, and that lack might cost the Thunder dearly. Serge Ibaka might be very eager, indeed, to prove that he and his contract were a sound and valid reason the financially strict Thunder couldn't, or wouldn't, keep Harden.
There might even be a motivated Kevin Martin, eager to show his former team another facial expression different the one of petulance that seemed to define his 2011-2012 season. Also, he'd probably like to score a lot of points, because he does that pretty damn well.
When you compare the two narratives, the Rockets' story obviously carries a superior moral weight to the careerist ambitions I've fictionally ascribed to the Thunder. If this was a movie, the Thunder's various desires would be thwarted. Their ascendency as a team would be blunted by the better storyline.
A movie Rockets team would have sailed through the day in a swift montage. We'd have witnessed jump-cut scenes of their exhaustion, both mental and physical. A flight north, a bus, the funeral of a woman taken too young, their devastated coach and his shattered family, a flight south, a bus, no shootaround, and then the Thunder. But for the, real, non-cinematic, Rockets it has, in fact, been a very long, very real, and very sad, day.
The tired Rockets would also be missing their best possible defender of Kevin Durant - Chandler Parsons, out with a mysterious shoulder injury. Instead the Rockets would feature Daequan Cook and his fiesta of questionable shot selections that amply answer the question "why is Daequan Cook a bench player?".
Things began well enough. OKC seemed focussed on stopping James Harden above all in the first. This worked well, but Patrick Patterson took advantage of the attention on the Beard, and continued his scoring blitz of the NBA. Omer Asik continued to grab every board in sight, and score at a surprising pace. The result was a brief Rocket lead, and a mere 2pt margin in favor of the Thunder at the end of the first.
The second quarter began poorly, though, as the Thunder showed the strength of their bench. Conversely the Rockets noatably demonstrated that their own bench is, unsurprisingly, a work in progress, and not much progress has been made. The Rockets have had great bench strength the past few seasons, thanks to Morey's shrewd dealing and strong drafting in both rounds. Arguably the bench has been better than the starting lineup at times in past seasons. Not now. This year is a rebuilding year for the Rockets depth as much as it is a retooling of the starters.
This was a brief bench effort to make Rocket fans despair, but perhaps necessary medicine. Toney Douglas looked like the Twitchy Toney we'd seen earlier. He looks like a fringe NBA player more than he looks like a player people once raved about. Terrence Jones looked lost in a brief stint and Marcus Morris drifted. Greg Smith, happily, beasted on the offensive glass. He is looking more and more like a real asset at backup center. That was one bright spot in a dismal few minutes of play, before Sampson called in the visibly tired starters. How will the bench ever improve with such a short fuse?
Despite Kelvin Sampson quickly yanking the reserves, the Rockets spent most of the second quarter doing their level best to surpass the the Thunder in a category where they lead the league - turnovers. The Rockets looked like the futile team of their recent, miserable, West Coast swing - out of control, sloppy, bereft of ideas. The Thunder looked poised, and aggressive. Add to that events like Durant getting a four point play simply because he felt the breeze as Harden sailed by him on a 3pt shot. The whole quarter looked bad, as the Thunder simply scored as they wished. Yet somehow the Rockets willed themselves to within 12 at the half.
(Also the refs decided to eject Hasheem Thabeet, and then decided, evidently, it would be funnier if they didn't.)
The third quarter started a bit better, with Harden making his first field goal of the game early in the period. He began to get a few calls when swarmed by defenders on drives. Thus the Rockets made runs at the Thunder, closing the gap to low double digits, with Harden shooting free throws and Patterson shooting anything except dunks. But every run was answered by the home team. Even with a better effort, and yet another double-double for Asik by mid-quarter, the Rockets couldn't close the gap to under about 14.
That pattern of play continued into the fourth. The Rockets would make a run, close to around 10-12pts behind, and then the Thunder would punch the accelerator take their lead to about 20. At no point did it seem like the Rockets would win, or even tie.
Additionally tonight was the sort of night that the San Antonio Spurs would remember ruefully from the playoffs: Serge Ibaka couldn't miss. In the fourth quarter he made a three. Serge Ibaka made a three, on purpose. In the end he finished with 23pts on 11-13 shooting, with 9 rebounds and 6(!) blocks in a mere 23 minutes and generally looked like money well spent (though I think Asik is a better defender, and one of the reasons for so few minutes was that Asik and Patterson got him into to foul trouble. (I think a valid strategy for playing the Thunder would be to attack Ibaka early and often. He may block some shots, but he's also the only interior D the Thunder have. And yes, I realize that Perkins exists.)
In the end, the story played out almost exactly to Thunder expectations. Durant made his point about scoring, dropping 37, and adding 7 boards and 4 assists (and that must explain why he played 43 minutes, as nothing else does.). Kevin Martin, in Kevin Martin fashion, did pretty well but not great. He scored 17pts, 6 of 14 (so inefficient!) and even managed 3 assists. He still didn't really play D. Westbrook, well, he he did brick a bit, going 6-15, for 17pts, but he also added 9 dimes.
(Jeremy Lamb got some "revenge" for being sent to the team that went to the Finals last season also, swishing two threes in about 2 minutes and glaring at the bench, as if they'd made the trade.)
The Rockets were game, and they fought hard, but the Thunder are, at this point, the best team in the West. There was no movie ending on offer for the Rockets tonight. In fact it seemed clear there would be no movie ending sometime early in the third quarter. With no happy ending to the script it seemed to be time to face facts. The fact is the Rockets just didn't have the horses to catch the Thunder, let alone beat them, not tonight. By the mid third quarter the Rockets looked beaten.
What do you do here if you're the Rockets coach? If you're a seasoned and experienced NBA head coach you might just send out the bench sometime in the third quarter to see what they'd do. A loss tonight was expected, and the expected was coming to pass. The Movie Rockets weren't going to show up. The real, tired, drained, Rockets were. The Thunder were clearly the better team. Who cares about the final margin, tonight of all nights?
Well, that's not the Kelvin Sampson way. He may be a great teacher, and leader of men. He may be a strategic genius of basketball. He may be a number of wonderful things, but one thing we know for sure, at this point he's truly, truly, a miserable in-game coach (agreeing with Grungedave here.) Sampson played all the starters about 40 minutes each, even Cook. This, on the night of a uniquely awful back-to-back, seems absurd. What did he achieve with those minutes? The worst loss of the season - 22pts.
Sampson had a chance to let the starters give it their best for about 28 minutes, and then turn it over to the fresher bench players to learn, and grow, and yes, lose. Really, what's the difference between a 22pt and a 32pt loss?
With no movie ending in sight, sheer practicality would be in order. No one, anywhere, would blame Sampson for running out the bench for better or worse. On a night of foiled hopes, that would have been the best ending we could see, and Rockets fans didn't even get that. In all, a miserable game on a miserable day. At least its over.
Now, the usuals, briefly (unlike this piece):
Patrick Patterson - the best scoring game of his career. He's looking more like a real threat to drop 20+ any night. The three pointer is a real shot, and the mid-range shot appears to be back. If he could complete a dunk or two it wold help. Still, 27pts on 11 for 18 shooting is pretty damn good. He even notched 6 boards.
Omer Asik - At this point there's not a lot of difference between him and, say, Tyson Chandler. A superb defender and rebounder coming into his own as a scorer. IF he can make FTs, he's approaching All-Star Country.
Jeremy Lin - Yes, it was tentative, but it was also a game that showed that Lin's strengths are returning, along with his confidence.
James Harden - Got worked like a speed bag by OKCs swarming doubling and tripling. 3-16 shooting (but 9-11 FT) and only 3 assists. A night we can hope he forgets.
Daequan Cook - Released from the bench, he tried to channel Kobe Bryant. He succeeded in shooting a lot, and not in a clever way. Still, 7-17, with 7 boards and 4 assists was a better effort than The Beard's.
Kelvin Sampson - Do you want to kill your starters? Do you realize the Rockets aren't championship contenders? Do you think Harden logging 83 minutes in two nights will get you a head coaching gig?