In their second game since Chris Paul’s Grade 2 hamstring injury, the Rockets once again figured out a way to put away a playoff contender. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a defensive stalwart this season, posting the second-best total defensive rebounds per game at 48.6 and leading the league in 12.9 offensive boards a game. The Rockets, meanwhile, rank 27th in total rebounds and miss the length of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to help on closeouts.
So, it was naturally a surprise when the Rockets, without their Hall of Fame point guard, were able to outrebound the Thunder 54 to 52. Of those 54 rebounds, 23 came from Clint Capela, who had his second 20+ rebound game in a row – simply incredible. The Rockets wanted this game, and it showed with effort on the boards and timely steals in the fourth quarter.
The 1st quarter was all Harden and Capela, with the Beard contributing 11 of his eventual 41 points, while Capela was a beast down in the post and on the boards. With Paul out, the Rockets are more prone to committing turnovers, as sometimes James gets a little too creative with his passing. Within the first five minutes of the game, the Rockets committed six turnovers, going on to have 20 for the game (though OKC was nearly errant with 15).
With about five minutes left in the 1st, new Rocket and expert arena tunnelogist Austin Rivers checked in. With Nene in the lineup, the Rockets were able to mitigate Steven Adams somewhat. The two would eventually post a +5 for the quarter, and at the end of the 1st the Rockets and Thunder were tied 22-22.
In the 2nd quarter, the Thunder went off, shooting 66.7% from the field. The Rockets were simply a sieve in the paint, resulting in several drives to the bucket by Westbrook and Schroder and Adams post-ups. This has consistently been an issue for the team all season (and even last season) but is an unfortunate byproduct of the Rockets’ switching defense and smaller size. Harden continued to be magnificent offensively, hitting some key shots towards the end of the quarter to keep the game close enough. It was 60 OKC, 52 HOU, at the half.
In the 3rd quarter, the Rockets began chipping away at OKC’s lead. The length of the Thunder defense continued to be an issue for the Rockets, forcing several turnovers. But there were critical threes made by some of the team’s role players, including Danuel House, Jr., who continues to be the energy guy and hometown hero that Gerald Green was for the team last season. PJ Tucker, not normally known for his inside-the-arc game, made some nice floaters, while Harden continued to ball out. At the end of the 3rd, the Rockets had cut OKC’s lead to two, despite several excellent offensive plays from Paul George, who is having far and away the best season of his career.
In the 4th quarter, the Rockets began to gain some momentum that was jumpstarted by a couple of drives from Eric Gordon. One of the bigger stories of this season is the regression of Gordon, whose 3pt% is no longer sufficient at 30.2%; his PER is a full five points below his career average of 14.5. Rockets faithful hope that his shot eventually clicks, yet, in the meantime, Gordon has often been using his strength to muscle in drives to the rim. Generally those attempts have been unsuccessful this season, as defenses have effectively anticipated them. But on this Christmas Day, they jumpstarted the Rockets offense. The Rockets were able to keep things close while Harden was out, and when he returned at around the 7-minute mark, the Rockets took off, growing the lead to 9 before George, Westbrook and co. began to chip away.
With the lead only at 4, Rivers was able to contribute in a big way down the stretch, hitting two 3-pointers and making a critical defensive stop against Westbrook:
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) December 25, 2018
Rivers ended the game a +6, the best amongst the team. The Rockets ultimately were able to hold off an OKC run, winning the game. Brandon Knight logged a DNP-CD, with D’Antoni opting to go with an eight-man lineup. Knight’s future is still murky in Houston, and Rivers may eventually be, in an ironic twist of fate, the backup point guard Chris Paul needed all along.
This was one of the more impressive wins for the Rockets this season. With their backs against the wall and without Paul, they were able to pull out a solid win against a top 3 team in the West. The team is now 18-15 and has won 7 of their last 8 games. Happy holidays to all!