Four games in, and the Houston Rockets lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1 in their first round series. While it might have been an expected ratio, who could have expected this margin considering the team has looked pretty bad for a large part of this series?
In game one it felt like the Rockets for whatever reason caught the Thunder off guard as they pick-and-rolled them into submission, destroying them 118-87.
The Thunder studied tape, made adjustments and over the past three games they've actually outplayed the Rockets.
Throughout the last three games, the Thunder's offensive rating is 111.5, compared to the Rockets’ 109.5, yet James Harden and Co. are the ones heading home with a chance to end the series on Tuesday in Game 5.
In games two, three and four, the Thunder started off on fire and have led by 10 points or more late in the game, but like clockwork around the fourth quarter, when Russell Westbrook heads to bench to get a rest, that's when the Rockets strike and retake the lead.
While the starters have yet to play an A-plus game, the bench has been a large reason why the team is leading this series. Aside from Harden, the Rockets’ three leading scorers are Nene, Lou Williams and Eric Gordon, and the Rockets are an amazing +13.2 when their superstar heads to the bench.
Harden hasn't played that poorly, but that's just how big the bench has been for Houston. In Game 2, Williams and Gordon combined for 43 points. In a losing effort, Williams poured in 22 points in Game 3, and in Game 4r Nene went bananas for 28 points.
When Harden and Westbrook are resting, Houston has guys they can turn to score, and the Thunder don’t. For the series when Westbrook heads to the bench, the Thunder are nearly at -18.9 when he leaves the floor.
Luckily for the Rockets, they have been able to win just from really amazing bench play.
Mike D'Antoni's team has yet to play a complete game. Even in Game 1, the Thunder had the lead when the first quarter ended. The Rockets made a habit of scoring 30-plus points in opening stanzas this season. They haven’t done that once yet in the series.
Throughout the series, the Rockets might have played five full quarters of good basketball, and even that might be a stretch. What we do know is the Rockets own the fourth quarter with a massive 125 offensive rating, while the Thunder's 87.0 is the worst offensive rating of any team in the fourth in the playoffs.
While the Rockets are getting great play in the fourth, they are not looking good until then, and while you might be able to beat the Thunder with just one good stretch of basketball, if they get matched up with the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, they won't win playing this way.
What the Rockets offense desperately needs is a massive shot of confidence in their three-point shots. During this series they are taking nearly 10 fewer three-pointers a game. While a lot of that is some good defense by the Thunder, running them off the line or closing out hard on open shooters, guys like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson are double clutching and appear to be thinking more than just running the offense that helped them snag the three seed during the regular season.
Honestly, the Rockets are very lucky that they have a chance to close out the Thunder on Tuesday. A couple of different bounces in the final minutes of games two and four we could be looking at a tied series or even worse, they could be down 3-1.
Outside of Patrick Beverley in Game 1, Harden has been the only bright spot in the starting lineup and while it hasn't hurt them yet, what's looming in the second round and on is challenges that will take the starters and the bench performing at a high level to pick up wins.