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Rockets apply and learn in bounce-back performance vs. Thunder

The Houston Rockets had to apply what they learned in the game against the Timberwolves in hopes of bouncing back against the Thunder on Friday.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

When the Houston Rockets dropped their season opener to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, coach Stephen Silas’ message to the team following the 20-point blowout was simple. Silas told his team inside the Target Center that they had some work to do in order to enhance their play, but did not overreact because it was the first game of the 2021-22 season.

In the 48 hours since the loss, the most significant responsibility for Silas was to not put pressure on his team, but to give his players the freedom to play their game. The results ended in the Rockets capturing their first win of the season in a 124-91 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Friday night, inside the Toyota Center in Houston.

Silas said during his post-game press conference that he called fewer plays from the sideline. Calling less plays is something Silas desires to do as a head coach because it’s an indicator that the Rockets are executing their game-plan of playing at a faster pace, floor spacing and defending at a high level.

The more diminutive half-court sets due to playcalling, the more comfortable Silas feels his players play.

“The experience of Game 1 helped us prepare for Game 2. We did not like the way we played the first game, and we rectified it. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come as far as learning from adversity and playing better.” — Silas

For the Rockets to bounce back from a humiliating defeat to the Timberwolves was to apply what they learned in hopes of a better performance versus the Thunder. One of the most consequential lessons that took place prior to their home opener came by the way of Kevin Porter Jr.

Amid the loss in Minnesota, Porter accounted for 9 out of Houston’s 24 turnovers. During film review, Porter noticed that forcing passes and missing reads was a primary factor into his displeasing performance.

His goal was to slow down and let the game come to him. And the lesson learned ensued in the 21-year-old point guard ending the night with 10 assists en route to scoring 18 points in 31 minutes.

Porter’s assimilation ahead of the game against the Thunder could be best demonstrated on a fast break early in the third quarter.

After stripping the ball from behind on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Porter commenced a fast break with his teammates filling the lanes up the court. Porter committed to a slight hesitation before attacking Darius Bazley downhill.

Instead of forcing a layup attempt, Porter noticed a help defender coming his way, which allowed Wood to cut to the basket. By taking a moment to go through his reads, Porter was able to find a slight window for a drop-off pass to Wood.

“After a game like that, you have to respond. And for a team like us, we had to respond tonight. It was a big step forward because we have 81 more of these games. We want to keep learning and taking steps forward — not back. And we took a huge step forward tonight.” — Porter

Applying the teachings in the win over the Thunder went beyond what took place against the Timberwolves. For Wood, it was about implementing the growth to his game that is more entrenched to play within Silas’ five-out offense.

As a versatile big who can score both inside and out, the ample amount of floor spacing gives Wood the ability to take advantage of obtaining the ball in his sweet spots.

Early in the first quarter, Wood received an entry pass from Porter inches away from the restricted area. With one defender on him, Wood attacked Bazley down the baselined for an easy dunk attempt.

This play best describes Wood’s growth as it made him nearly impossible for the Thunder to defend. Had Oklahoma City committed to a double-team, Wood possesses the playmaking capabilities to find his teammates out on the perimeter for an open three — hint Eric Gordon standing alone in the corner near the Rockets bench.

Even when receiving the ball beyond the arc, Wood utilized the floor spacing as a triple threat opportunity for Houston. Early in the second quarter, Wood held the ball in isolation with Luguentz Dort as his primary defender. By the Rockets clearing out, Wood had three offensive options that would work Houston’s favor.

The first was to attack downhill, which would have left Porter open for an easy three-point field goal attempt had Theo Maledon stepped up in help defense. The second alternative for Wood was a lob pass to Daniel Theis had Kenrich Williams filled in the gap. And the final option was to use his long stature to attempt a shot from behind the arc over Dort.

The Thunder’s unwillingness to commit to the help defense resulted in Wood connecting on his first of four made triples on the night. Wood’s play ended with him coming one point shy of his career-high, as he registered 31 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the win.

“I think I initiate an offense. When I drive to the basket, I get doubled and the help defense usually has me kicking the ball out. It allows me to show what I can do when the floor is open. And I can create for other guys and for myself.” — Wood

Porter said the team was fired up after their season opener and could not wait to step onto their homecourt to dispatch the bad loss.

Now, even in a win, the Rockets will continue the theme of applying what they learned in hopes of putting on a better performance on Sunday, when they take on the 0-2 Boston Celtics — who loss to the Toronto Raptors 115-83 on Friday.

As a veteran team, the Celtics will possess more of a challenge for the Rockets than the Thunder, but it’s one where their first two opponents provided a blueprint on how to win on the season.