We are back to where we started. Series tied. Rather than a Best-of-7 though, we now face a Best-of-3 series with nowhere to hide. Tonight’s game is critical, if not must-win, for both teams.
This week’s TDS panelists include Coty Davis (CD), Michael Brown (MB), Darren Yuvan (DY), Max Croes (MC), and Sarah Dewberry (SD), a special guest panelist and managing editor for Welcome to Loud City, the Thunder SB Nation site. Thank you for collaborating with us, Sarah!
Continue these debates in the comments and check out WTLC for some more insight on our playoff opponent.
1. What’s been the biggest surprise of the series so far?
Coty Davis (@CotyDavis_24): Jeff Green. Going into the playoffs, I had a feeling Green would play a significant role in the Rockets’ playoff success. But I did not expect his production to be this beneficial. With Russell Westbrook out, Green has provided the Rockets with a second reliable scoring option, averaging 17.3 points on 55.6% shooting from the field. As well as a second-tear playmaker when James Harden is taking a breather. And I cannot forget to mention his presence on the defensive side of the floor. Green’s ability to protect the paint played a significant role in helping the Rockets take the first two games of this series. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Green has the potential to go down as one of Daryl Morey’s best additions in the buyout market.
Michael Brown (@UHBigRedHatGuy): The Rockets’ inability to perform consistently at a high level in the 4th quarter. We all understand that the Thunder are one of the best in the league in the 4th quarter, but the Rockets are making silly mistakes themselves, and it is costing them games.
Darren Yuvan (@DarrenYuvan): That the Rockets are getting really good series from several players and are still tied 2-2. James Harden is averaging 32 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, and 2 steals per game. Jeff Green is averaging 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, while Danuel House is averaging 16 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. If you told me those stats before the series, I’d have Houston up 3-1 or finishing a 4-0 sweep. The Rockets need more from Ben McLemore, Robert Covington, and P.J. Tucker.
Max Croes (@Croesfire): The inability to finish the job in the 4th quarter in games 3 and 4 after looking spectacular in games 1 and 2.
Sarah Dewberry (@SarahhDewberry): OKC has come back from an 0-2 deficit. I did not see that coming. I honestly thought as the series headed into Game 3 that this was the most pathetic playoff series in Thunder history. But OKC has made some adjustments and Chris Paul has really stepped up.
2. What’s the biggest key for the Thunder to win tonight?
CD: The Thunder’s three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. In the first two games of the series, the Thunder trio averaged a subpar 46.5 points — in comparison to the 76.0 points they average in Games 3 and 4.
MB: If the Thunder can contain the Rockets auxiliary pieces (Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker), they should have a good chance to win the game. We all know James Harden will get his points, so by containing his help, the Thunder will be in a great spot to steal Game 5 away from the Rockets.
DY: Free throws. These teams are shooting roughly the same percentage from the field and deep, and the Rockets have made 77 threes to the Thunder’s 49. But OKC is 83-106 from the free throw line, while the Rockets are just 58-70. And I’m tired of hearing this BS that Houston doesn’t get calls because they shoot a lot of threes. Well, they also shoot a heck of a lot at the rim too. Threes and layups.
MC: Continuing to attack with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. These guys both look like All-Stars in the Thunder wins and the Rockets defense may as well be casting a fan vote for them.
SD: Lu Dort. He has been spectacular when it comes to guarding James Harden. In Game 3, Dort was a nuisance for Harden, who only shot 33% when Dort was playing. He also went 1-for-12 from downtown.
In Game 4, Harden had 32 points and 15 assists but scored 7 points in the fourth and went 3-of-7 from the field while Dort was on him.
If OKC wants to win, head coach Billy Donovan needs to play Dort every second Harden is out on the court. If Harden is playing, Dort should be guarding him. Also, I just want to note that Dort miraculously didn’t foul out in Game 4 win. That’s super impressive!
3. What’s the biggest key for the Rockets to win tonight?
CD: The Rockets have to make some kind of adjustments to their offense when the 3’s are not falling. In Games 4, Houston went into an abhorrent dry spell from deep, and never once considered making an offensive adjustment. Allowing your team to shoot 5-25 from behind the arc late in the second half would not win you a game in 2K — let alone a real postseason contest against the Thunder. I get it, this is an analytic team who only believes in three’s and layups. But sometimes a minor change could be the difference in a three-point playoff loss. You would think the Rockets would have learned their lesson following the Western Conference Finals in 2018. NOPE!
MB: The Rockets have to find a defensive answer for Dennis Schroder. If he continues to be able to drive the ball to the basket, and get there whenever he wants, the Rockets defense is in real trouble.
DY: They have to close the game. They had both of the last two in their grasp and let a sweep slip by. Now we have a series, and the Rockets need a closer. Who’s it gonna be?
MC: Going to the rack and getting free throws. Moreyball efficiency is threes, layups, and free throws. In game 4 Houston settled for threes on tired legs instead of going to the basket and drawing fouls.
SD: They have to be consistent when shooting from downtown. In Game 2, the Rockets attempted 56 3-pointers, only making 19 of them. In Game 4, they launched 58 3s, only making 23. In the first three-quarters of Game 4, they made 50% of their 3-pointers, but by the fourth, they went 2-of-16 on 3-pointers. If they want to win, they have to stop just throwing the ball up and hoping it falls in.
4. How important is Westbrook’s impact to the team after his absence in the series so far?
CD: He is an enormous difference-maker — starting with his ability to provide the Rockets with another ball-handler to help James Harden while on the floor. Most importantly, Westbrook would have been the player Houston needed to jumpstart their offense after they went cold from behind the arc — given his ability to attack the basket and commitment to the mid-range game.
MB: Russell Westbrook has been dearly missed by the Rockets. His emotional leadership from the bench has been important, but more than anything, he gives the Rockets a valuable weapon on the offensive end of the floor that will help create many more easy shots.
DY: I think he makes a huge difference. The Rockets had an ugly dry spell from deep in the second half of Game 4, and they could have used Russ’s downhill game to force the issue inside a little more. Just a couple easy buckets or free throws, and this series is 3-1 and on its last legs.
MC: As Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers continue to falter there’s no Rocket driving to the basket to draw fouls or initiate offense. Westbrook isn’t available, but he’s desperately needed. Iron Maiden Tanktops Forever.
SD: The Rockets will miss him, but they won two games without him. Yes, not having him for Game 4 could change the balance of the series to OKC’s favor, but his energy on the bench is felt and I don’t think it’ll matter too much.
5. What is your prediction for tonight’s Game 5?
CD: Based on my original prediction, I had the Rockets in a close seven games, and I am sticking to my pick. However, if they do not win on Wednesday, I have a strong feeling Houston would not have enough mentality to force a Game 7. So with that said, I have the Rockets coming away with a ten-point victory behind a legendary performance from James Harden. Luguentz Dort has done an exceptional job slowing down the three-time scoring champion, but it is only a matter of time before the Canadian prodigy becomes the latest victim in Harden’s 40-to-50-point masterpiece. Prominent scores like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan always figure out how to score against their toughest opponents. And Harden will figure it out.
MB: This is put up or shut up time for the Rockets. Either they will rise to the occasion to and take a 3-2 lead, or they will emotionally crack, and let the Thunder win their 3rd game in a row. I will take the Rockets, 106-102.
DY: I actually have the Thunder tonight in another close one, say under 6 points. For the record, I still have Rockets in 7 (my original pick). Winning back to back elimination games is just what this team needs to pull together.
MC: First and foremost please take safety precaution and heed the advice of emergency personnel in the face of hurricane Laura, and COVID-19. Rockets by 8.
SD: Game prediction: Thunder win Game 5 by 5, win series in 7