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Third quarter collapse dooms Rockets in 117-114 loss to Thunder

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An Old Nemesis (or two) Returns

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four
He certainly looked like a guy playing 43 minutes.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This is the kind of game OKC loves. Ugly, scrappy, close. The kind of game they can win, against a Rockets team I believe to be better, overall. Even getting that game, the Thunder still needed some help to win. Help they got, from the Rockets players, from Rockets shot selection, from Mike D’Antoni, and from the free throw line.

Let’s see if we can separate the game from the hot takes. I think the Rockets failed to win this game more than OKC took it.

  1. Tired Harden Makes Poor Decisions, Misses Westbrook Late

Without Russell Westbrook, the Rockets have at most one reliable shot creator, and two others who might or might not be up to the task in a given game. Eric Gordon (erratic shot creator #1) played pretty well, and shot a lot better than he has, overall. This was his best game of the bubble. This is a good sign, long-term, if there is a long-term, because Harden, Westbrook and Gordon operating on a high level are very difficult to defeat.

Austin Rivers, (erratic shot creator #2), barely played in this one, and the Rockets missed his energy and defense. One has to think an additional 5 Rivers minutes would have helped Harden stay fresher, and not be at 43 minutes in any case.

James Harden, and the rest of the Rockets, seemingly tired at the end, and settled for some 3pt shots that didn’t fall. There were late game turnovers that were reminiscent of early Rockets James Harden in the playoffs. It seemed clear that Harden was wearing down, and making mistakes. This season that has happened far less. That’s because James Harden usually has had a friend around, a 28 point per game friend, to pick up the slack. Westbrook’s game, for all its frustrations, provide a spark that is totally different from the rest of the team. A few turbo-power Brodie drives, from his seemingly endless well of energy probably wins the past two games for Houston.

Seasoned Rockets fans saw all the old stuff we hate. Dribbling the shot clock down, settling for contested 3pt shots, passing out of scoring drives, for what is ostensibly a better shot, when just a couple of points are needed.

2. Rockets Forced Into, Or Simply Adopting, Bad Offensive Patterns

Seasoned Rockets fans also saw an old nemesis, Tony Brothers, call a typically fraternal game, but a worse one (by +12 non-donated FTs) for the Rockets. When the FT margin is four times the margin of victory, it at least bears some scrutiny.

The Rockets shoulder the majority of blame for this loss, but they don’t shoulder it alone. There appeared to be a different whistle on Rockets drives than Thunder drives, where soft contact, and the whole Chris Paul bag of tricks, aided OKC greatly. This seemed to reduce Rockets drives for points, and turn them into drives for passes. If drive-and-kick for three point shots combines with the Rockets going cold on those shots, they can lose games they could and should win. That happened tonight, with a plethora of flat shots coming from tired players. Where they forced into this tactic? It seems possible that they were.

Without Westbrook there never seems to be any impetus for the Rockets to just gouge out a basket any way they can. Maybe that’s good discipline, but it also feels inflexible and problematic in the playoffs.

If you’re the type that wants to believe how a game is called doesn’t matter, that’s fine. But consider, a Clippers-Mavericks game had 76 FTs in regulation, divided about equally. The Rockets shot ten today. The Mavs and Rockets don’t play very differently on offense.

3. Mike D’Antoni’s Bad Tendencies Resurface

Mike D’Antoni seemed so eager to get a 3-1 lead, which is understandable, that he tightened up his bench. He went away from the bench that had allowed the Rockets to win games one and two, and go within a made free throw of going up 3-0 in game three. That cost the Rockets, as Harden had two terrible passes for turnovers late today, and shot three long 3s late in the game, rather than attacking.

Mike D’Antoni is a great coach, but like most great people, the thing that makes him great can also be a tragic flaw. He unleashes what’s best in players, and he lets them be themselves. That’s why, I believe, so many players find new life on the Rockets. (Jeff Green has been nothing short of terrific in this series.)

He will also let them shoot themselves out of games, and will ride his best players even when they’re obviously tiring, because he believes they’ll come through in the end.

Some Conclusions

Missing your second star matters. Losing roughly 27 pts, 8 rbs, 7ast, 1.5 stl does matter, clever theories about shooting and defense aside. Especially when the Rockets go cold. I believe the Rockets, despite the tied series, are better than OKC, even without Westbrook, but they’ve made enough mistakes to let the Thunder back into the series.

OKC, with it’s high floor, can’t be allowed to hang around, because they will steadily score points, even if it isn’t generally a lot of points. The Rockets, with their high-variance style can just go flat. Without Westbrook to pick them up in those cases, it can lead to losses.

Harden had a bad end to the 4th quarter, unquestionably. Perhaps, though, the player who got your team 32pts, 15 ast, 8 rbs, 4 stl isn’t the team’s core problem.

My prediction of Rockets in six still seems decent to me, though there’s a strong sense the NBA wants seven games. I think we’ll see Westbrook next game, but that could be a mixed blessing, given that he’s hardly played in the bubble. If he cooks OKC on drive after drive, that’s one thing. If he decides to shoot threes? The Rockets could be in trouble.

Poll

And how now, now?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Rockets In Six
    (195 votes)
  • 20%
    Rockets in Seven
    (133 votes)
  • 14%
    Thunder In Six
    (94 votes)
  • 29%
    Thunder In Seven
    (193 votes)
  • 5%
    Had to make up for all those Eastern Conference sweeps, eh? Thanks.
    (39 votes)
654 votes total Vote Now