Where do we begin? Omer Asik’s valiant foray at the free-throw line? James Harden nearly forcing David Stern to move the 3-point arc back a couple feet by making his first seven attempts? How about Francisco Garcia stepping up with 14 first half points (before tonight he averaged 8.8 per game in these playoffs)? Or Aaron Brooks sinking not one, but two end-of-quarter buzzer beaters?
All of that matters. But at the same time, none of it’s important. What’s notable is that the Houston Rockets weren’t rattled for one of this game’s 48 minutes, doing what was previously thought to be the impossible and handily winning a playoff game at Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the defending Western Conference champions, Westbrook or no Westbrook.
The Rockets were fearless from the opening tip, with Harden knocking down shot after shot, Garcia sliding into his role as someone who needs to not only knock down spot up threes when the Thunder over-defend against Harden’s drives but also initiate action off the dribble, and Brooks repeatedly abusing Derek Fisher (who played 29 minutes in the game—thank you, Scott Brooks) off the dribble.
On the first possession of the second half, Chandler Parsons (2-of-9 at halftime) drove through the paint and threw down a ferocious one-handed dunked in traffic.
And with much being said about Oklahoma City’s predictable offense, it was their defense that hurt them tonight as the Rockets pick-and-rolled them to death in the third quarter, especially with the Asik (who did a tremendous job catching the ball on the move) and Parsons tandem.
Every time the Thunder tried to make a run and force their way back into the game, Houston responded. Every. Single. Time.
After cutting it to 10 on a Kevin Durant three-pointer late in the third quarter, with the crowd standing, screaming, and basically shaking my TV on its stand, Harden calmly came down the court, crossed up Thabo Sefolosha with a move that Chris Webber compared favorably to the legendary Tim Hardaway, and finished at the rim.
A few possessions later, Fisher knocked down an open three and the crowd once again began to bubble into eruption. Brooks came down the other end, sized up then blew by Fisher, and eventually got to the free-throw line where he sank both freebies.
These situations repeated themselves as the second half dragged on, up until Brooks decided intentionally fouling Asik on every single defensive possession was a good idea. Asik made 8-of-12 attempts from the line and the Thunder were unable to cut into Houston’s lead during a crucial stretch.
What’s most encouraging moving forward from this is, once again, Houston’s small ball lineups. Kevin McHale threw out Patrick Beverley, Brooks, and Harden at the same time in the fourth quarter, spreading the floor with three penetrators capable of getting to the basket at will. Look for more of that in Game 6.
In Game 5, Houston’s role players came to play, and they weren’t scared of the moment. These things are important in the playoffs, especially for a young team with low expectations competing in one of the most intimidating environments in all of professional sports.
Harden received far more help than Kevin Durant. That theme will need to carry itself through this series if the Rockets want to pull off the humongous upset.