It sounded LOUD in the Toyota Center. Looked great with everyone dressed in red. The crowd was all set to will their team to victory, and for a long time the Rockets looked like they were capable of obliging them. But unfortunately the team was unable to pull it off and the Thunder escaped from Houston with the win.
I can’t feel too bummed about it, because frankly at 3-0 down it looked like it was going to be a sweep. Harden et al. have shown so much potential over the course of this series that it’s difficult not to feel incredibly optimistic about what the future holds. And yet, for large parts of this game it felt like it was there for the taking before the Thunder pulled away in the final frame. The Rockets will have to take solace from pushing the #1 seed so far, and look to come back stronger in the Autumn.
I wondered whether the Thunder would be able to exploit Ibaka’s size advantage on Harden any better in this game than they have in previous outings. It looked ominous when Ibaka posted up on the first possession and sunk a short jumper. But after that they never really came back to it. Ibaka is not known for his post game, but Scott Brooks did say after the last game that the gameplan was to try to exploit that mismatch a bit, so I’m surprised they didn’t go to it a little more.
With the ultra-spread floor, Asik had a lot of open space to roll through. He was getting to the rim hard for some good looks around the basket. He and Brooks still need to develop a bit more chemistry – Brooks tried to force some difficult bounce passes, and we know by now that that’s not Omer’s cup of tea. However, as the first half went on you could see him picking up confidence in his ability to catch the ball on the move and the effectiveness of the play improved accordingly. The issue was that apart from that the there was very little on. The Rockets were not able to penetrate often enough to provide their three point shooters with many open looks (though to their credit, both Parsons and Garcia were still able to put in a few three balls). It wasn’t until late in the half that Harden was able to break loose and combine his threat from behind the arc with his driving game. Prior to that point the Thunder had been able to take advantage of the Rockets’ dry spell to build up a lead of as many as 11 before being pegged back to 58-54 at the half.
Lin checked in to the game late in the first when Beverley had to go to the bench with two fouls. It was clear that he was not completely healthy and unfortunately that translated into how he was used on the court. If Lin’s going to be out there, he needs to be handling the ball with regularity. But the Rockets ran most of the play through Harden and Brooks, relegating Lin to a spot-up floor spacer. This predictably did not work very well as it took away pretty much all of Lin’s strengths – there was very little in the way of a driving game, and the ball wasn’t in his hands enough for him to use his passing skills either.
It was too much to expect Martin to keep missing his outside shots. In the second quarter he became the focal point of the offense while Durant was on the bench and helped drive the Thunder back into the league. The Thunder appeared to have added a few wrinkles to their offense to help him get open as he was regularly able to get the slivers of space he needs to get off his quick-release shot. 21 points in the first half and it felt like he was more than making up for his mediocrity in game 5.
We also saw a lot more of Collison in this game (he was the player that Thunder fans were clamouring for Scott Brooks to play more), and he was a catalyst for a lot of the good things OKC did in the second quarter. Good rotations filled the lane and made it harder for the Rockets to execute their driving game, great work on the offensive glass got his team several more possessions and he also did some facilitating from the high post on the offensive end (there was one particularly Princeton-y play where Martin was able to get free on a back-cut – brought back memories of Adelman’s offense).
Parsons came out of the gate hot in the third quarter, draining three threes and energizing the crowd. Suddenly the tables turned and it was the Thunder who were struggling to generate any offense to speak of. A spot of zone made it difficult for Durant to score by himself, and it wasn’t until Reggie Jackson stepped up that the Thunder had anyone else to shoulder the scoring load. But with that zone no longer being a surprise tactic, eventually OKC figured it out and were able to go on a run. Closing out the quarter well, they were able to take a 78-77 lead into the final frame.
Unfortunately, the wheels fell off in the final frame. Durant started to read the extra defenders coming his way and found the open man. When that open man was Fisher, he buried his outside shots. In combination with some surprisingly solid defense on Harden, I have to (begrudgingly) say that he showed his value beyond the ‘veteran leadership’ that is widely noted as his only redeeming quality. Harden, perhaps running low on energy due to his illness, was bitten by the turnover bug again. Two costly live ball turnovers converted into easy run-outs blew open the game at stages where it was critical that the Rockets get a score. The lead ballooned to 15 with 3:00 left and the game was over, and with it the series.
- Garcia and Perkins had a minor shoving match early on and a few other players were dragged in to a war of words. In the end, the refs assessed things almost exactly even – double technicals and a personal foul on Garcia on the play, but then they immediately called an offensive foul on Perkins before the ball was inbounded. That confrontation set the tone for the rest of the game, which had plenty more incidents to add spice to proceedings. Like people who’ve been living together for too long, it’s clear that after 6 games against each other the two teams are starting to get annoyed with each other. There was a further set of double technicals handed out to Durant and Asik (very out of character for him!) for jawing at each other. Durant kneed Parsons in the unmentionables at one point. As the first half buzzer ended, Parsons stepped in to take a charge on Durant that was seen as a no-call by the referee, and it looked as though Parsons was close to getting T’ed up as well.
- Harden continued to exhibit his mastery of the two-for-one at the end of the first half, pulling up for a three with 34 seconds remaining. The late scoring bursts the Rockets are able to pull off at the end of quarters because of this is really useful – suddenly instead of being down ten they’re down 5, or the lead gets stretched when the game is tight.
- In the third quarter, Harden had a humourous play. He felt Ibaka had been in the lane for more than three seconds, so he started jumping up and down and informing the referees. As soon as Ibaka stepped out of the key, Harden blew by his defender for a layup.