Oklahoma City Thunder 112, Houston Rockets 111: Gut punched to the 4th seed

The Rockets had been on a roll entering tonight’s season finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder, being winners of the last six and convincingly blowing out its last four opponents by 30 points or more. They have had the second best net rating since the All-Star Break and owned the second best defense. The team appeared to be clicking on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. They also had a lot to play for. With the Denver Nuggets dropping their game to the Utah Jazz prior to the start of the fourth quarter, the second seed seemed in reach, thus securing the Rockets home court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs and avoiding a visit with the Golden State Warriors until the Western Conference Finals.

The Rockets were mainly in control through three quarters, having a lead of as much as 15. However, the team reverted to some old habits heading into the fourth and would ultimately squander the game to a devastating three-pointer from Paul George.

In the first quarter, the Rockets’ defense was off to a poor start:

Steven Adams was just an absolute bruiser on the boards as he seems to always be against the Rockets, grabbing nine rebounds in the quarter alone. The Rockets had no answers for OKC on the offensive glass, where the team ranks 1st in the league, averaging 12.6 a game. James Harden, however, would keep the Rockets in the game, scoring 14 points in the quarter, while Eric Gordon would contribute 8. It would be the only points Gordon would score for the rest of the game. The Rockets owe a lot of their success this past month and half to Eric Gordon, who has been lights out from 3pt range. However, when he’s not contributing to the team (he finished the game at a team worse -12 by a very large margin), the offense sputters, and the team has a harder time pulling out wins. Many discuss the importance of Chris Paul being healthy and All-Star level in the playoffs to give the Rockets a punchers chance to reach the finals, but equally important is Eric Gordon being able to turn it on and contribute. The Rockets would end the half up six, 32-26.

Heading into the second quarter, The Rockets began to slowly but surely build their lead against OKC. While Gordon wasn’t proving to be effective shooting-wise, he created several key assists to Capela in transition, as the big man poured in six points. Gerald Green, who has seen his playing time reduced by Iman Shumpert recently, checked in and uncorked two pent-up three-pointers, which would be a preview of things to come in the second half. Harden would continue where he left off in the first quarter, scoring another 12 points to have 26 by the end of the first half. He would reach a milestone that only he would be able to call his own:

Heading into the second half, the Rockets were up 9 against the Thunder with a score of 60-51, and had appeared to have answers for the team with each run they made.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Rockets continued to steadily grow their lead against OKC. Gerald Green went off and connected on 3 more three-pointers with high degrees of difficulty:

Green’s quick trigger is perfectly at home in MDA’s offensive system, as it allows the team to set up quicker on defense in the event of a missed shot.
In contrast, former Rocket James Ennis, while able to shoot the three-pointer at a decent percentage, had a much slower release time, thereby resulting in more transition opportunities for opponents. Chris Paul would equally make some great shots and often was able to set up teammates – he would end the third quarter with nine points and three assists. OKC’s primary strategy for Harden was to limit his playmaking ability, which by and large was successful – he would have at the end of the 3rd quarter only two assists – but was still able to contribute eight points to get his scoring total to 34. At the end of the 3rd quarter, the Rockets were up 12 points and seemed to have the game in their hands. But Rockets fans know all too well how the last game with Oklahoma City ended when the Rockets squandered a 26 point lead in a loss. They knew not to hold their breath.

In the 4th quarter, the Rockets would ultimately revert to their old bad habits from earlier in the season. OKC’s length was a problem for the team all night, and the team became more passive offensively, settling for three-pointers rather than attacking the basket. The Rockets would go on a scoring drought, as OKC’s highly ranked defensive rating (4th in the league at 106.4) began to truly put the clamps on Houston:

Much has been discussed about the Rockets’ improved defense, but their offense, as elite as it is (114.8 OFFRTG, 2nd in the league), has sputtered at times. In situations like this, the Rockets simply need to be more aggressive when the three isn’t falling, particularly in the higher leverage scenarios a tight game in the 4th quarter presents. This is why you have someone like Chris Paul close out games, as his mid-range jumper, typically a highly effective shot (mid to high 40s%) can help sustain leads.

The team all of a sudden couldn’t make threes, as Eric Gordon hit one brick after the other and Gerald Green cooled down. Chris Paul would make some big-time shots, but the team couldn’t stop the Thunder, who would erase the Rockets lead behind some big performances by Russell Westbrook and Paul George. This is why most Rockets fans don’t want to face OKC in the first round – while their floor is potentially lower (turnover prone, poor shooting), they have two of the top 10 players in the league in George and Westbrook, which makes their ceiling higher. For how poorly the team has performed to expectations this season, they are still a highly credible threat that, with their length and athleticism, is a mismatch for the Rockets. Westbrook would go on to score 13 points in the quarter, including three threes, particularly a critical one in the closing seconds to bring OKC within one.

With the score 108-107 Rockets, the team would foul Harden, who would hit his two free throws to bring the score to 110-107 with 15 seconds left. On an inbound pass, the Rockets missed their assignments on defense, and Westbrook scored an easy drive to bring the Thunder within one. Harden was subsequently fouled, missing one of his free throws, setting up George to hit the game winner:

The Rockets had an opportunity to win the game with 1.8 seconds, and successfully inbounded to Harden for a wide open three, but the shot would not fall and the Rockets fell to the Thunder 111-112.

With the season over and Portland winning against the Lakers on, fittingly, a buzzer beater, the Rockets are now in 4th place and are currently matched up against the Jazz in the first round. After tonight’s game, many Rockets fans would rather not face OKC in the playoffs. Much will be determined on the final day of the season tomorrow. I’d rather not get into playoff seeding scenarios, though it is increasingly likely the team may draw the Golden State Warriors in the second round. I would argue that is a less favorable scenario than meeting them in the Western Conference Finals, though let the chips fall where they may. The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend.

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