Well, now it’s time buckle up.
The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are now in a best-of-three series, in which the “home” team has won all four games so far. The old wisdom is that a series doesn’t start until the road team wins a game, but of course none of that matters here. Or does it?
The Rockets, particularly James Harden, got sloppy and tired late in the game. Their legs were not under them in the fourth quarter, and the shooting stats prove that. At a time where Houston should have been driving and forcing the issue, they settled for deep looks. Houston has taken at least 50 threes in each of the first four games of the series. They are also averaging only 17.5 free throw attempts per game. These two facts are connected. Remember, Houston’s efficient offense revolves around threes, layups, and free throws.
The Rockets continued to have trouble defending OKC’s perimeter guards, especially Dennis Schroder, who looks unrecognizable from his Game 1 version that was incredibly passive. The Rockets have been unable to prevent penetration, and that has led to many points for Schroder, Chris Paul, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Houston is also hampered by their “swing everything” defensive strategy against OKC. More than most teams, the Thunder hunt favorable matchups. In Game 4, that meant that Ben McLemore was attacked relentlessly to the point that he has possibly become unplayable in the series. In the second half, the Thunder set their sights on Harden. That killed the Rockets in multiple ways, since it was probably the effort expended on defense that led to Harden’s decision to settle for so many long threes in the fourth quarter. Even worse for Houston was that their bench was unable to hold the lead late in the second half, so Harden’s exhaustion was further compounded by the fact that he had to play the entire fourth quarter. If Harden has to play 43 minutes again, the Rockets are losing this series 4-2.
The big question now is whether or not Russell Westbrook will be available moving forward. Obviously, Houston hoped that they could get through this series without Russ, and Games 1 and 2 allowed them to hope. Three days later, that plan has been thrown into disarray and the Rockets might have to push Russ to return early, which could have devastating consequences down the line. As of this writing, no decision has been made on Russ’s status for Game 5.
Update: Russ is still out for Game 5.
Update 2: This game is not happening.