Rockets team backs Harden as they bury Thunder in Game 1

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) goes up for a shot as Oklahoma City Thunder's Enes Kanter defends during the first half in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 16, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

One game into the MVP showdown between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the differences between their two teams screamed loudly throughout the game. Eventually, Harden would show out with a 37-point, 9-assist and 7-rebound performance. It just took a while for him to get things going, while Westbrook and the Thunder fought but failed to capitalize.

As Harden struggled early in this contest, his teammates picked him up. Patrick Beverley was a monster throughout the game. He hounded Westbrook and forced a bunch of shots and turnovers that took OKC out of their attack. On the other end of the floor, Beverley looked like a 6-foot-1 stretch-4. He knocked down a bunch of three-pointers (4-of-6) and he finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

The Beverley-Harden duo was complemented perfectly by the Clint Capela-Nene rotation inside. Both big men flooded the middle of the floor, providing a passing target with a gravitational pull against the OKC defense. It gave Harden the chance to get into a rhythm with delivering the ball while his shot wasn’t falling. Harden’s 18-point first half (on 20 shots) didn’t scream the efficiency Rockets fans love to champion with him. However, he turned it on in the second half when he dropped 19 points on eight shots and kept dishing out assists.

The other side of the match-up saw a lot of fight from the Thunder early, but not enough substance throughout the game to keep from getting blown out. Andre Roberson tried to help Westbrook and keep the Thunder afloat throughout this game. He knocked down 4-of-6 from three-point range on his way to 18 points. In his previous 16 games, he had knocked down four three-pointers total. To get this kind of shooting performance from him and waste it seems like an even deeper layer to the disaster of Game 1.

The rest of the team wasn’t as accommodating in trying to help out, and Westbrook wasn’t able at all to make Houston pay for their mistakes in the first half. Russ struggled immensely, as he settled for three-point attempts and turned the ball over by trying to do too much. You can look at that as a badge of valor as he tries to take on the world, but he struggled against a Houston team that hasn’t defended much since the beginning of March.

Westbrook finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists. Unfortunately, those numbers also came with 9 turnovers (Houston had 11 as a team) and 6-of-23 shooting (3-of-11 from deep). MVP battle narrative aside, this just wasn’t the type of performance from him Oklahoma City can survive.

Eventually, the Rockets got their act together in the second half. The swing in how close the score was died off; a blowout had commenced. Jerami Grant was the only other Thunder player in double figures, but he was also a -25 in 27 minutes.

Nothing worked and the Thunder were beat at their own game. The Rockets grabbed twice as many offensive rebounds as OKC did. Considering the Thunder shot 37.0 percent from the field, there were plenty of opportunities to own the second chance points.

The Thunder have plenty they can do to turn things around, but getting tricked into trying to gun with the Rockets isn’t one of them. The math problem of 3 > 2 remains an issue for them. OKC does a great job in general of limiting three-point attempts, but they didn’t run off those attempts into the midrange. They simply allowed the Rockets to live at the rim (more on that in a bit).

OKC can’t expect the Rockets to shoot just 30.3 percent from deep again. So if that offense gets clicking like it’s supposed to, what do the Thunder do then? What does Russ do then? How do the Thunder survive the coming onslaught when they can’t even get their MVP to have an impact on the game?

Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook, right, leaves the court after losing to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 16, 2017, in Houston. The Rockets won 118-87. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, right, leaves the court after losing to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 16, 2017, in Houston. The Rockets won 118-87. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Adjustment game by the Thunder

Billy Donovan decided not to throw a wrench into what Houston wanted to do. In 397 minutes this season, Donovan ran Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together on the court. The Stache Bros did a great job in those minutes of making a huge impact. They owned the boards in those minutes, grabbing 35.3 percent of available offensive rebounds. They allowed their opponents to grab just 20.8 percent of offensive rebounds on the other end of the floor.

Adams and Kanter managed to often bully opponents inside. Overall, the pairing rated out pretty well. They outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s not the Death Lineup of the Golden State Warriors, but their brawn was highly effective.

This wasn’t something Donovan went to in Game 1 against Houston. It’s understandable why he didn’t. The Rockets want to spread the defense out and make things quicker than they can handle. Going big against that team can turn you into a sloth trying to win a foot race.

However, it may be something OKC has to consider for a few stretches. Donovan didn’t go to the Adams-Kanter pairing once. If he does try to go to this later in the series, the idea would be to act as bullies. That screen that leveled Beverley during the game? That kind of toughness and physicality has to be emanating from that lineup at all times. They have to slow the pace way down with that pairing. Take the Rockets out of their comfort zone and make them grind out possessions on both ends.

The worry is that the Rockets will continue hunting out Kanter in pick-and-rolls. They’d be fools not to do that. However, maybe you get weird enough with the brawn of Adams and Kanter that it makes up for it in small stretches. You’re not going to run with Houston, so make them crawl.

Adjustment game by the Rockets

Houston only shot 33 three-pointers in this game, making 10 of them. There were only 14 games (9-5) this season in which the Rockets shot 33 three-pointers or fewer in a game. Their rate of three-pointers attempted (36.2 percent) would have registered as the sixth lowest of the season for Houston. In games they’ve had a three-point rate of 36.5 percent or lower, they’re just 3-4. Keeping Houston from shooting three-pointers is a great strategy on defense.

In that respect, the Thunder did a good job of getting Houston to go away from what they’d normally do. A lot of this had to do with the way the Thunder were defending Harden. They allowed Roberson to hound him, fight around screens, and keep challenging every shot Harden could hope to find. Roberson’s individual effort allowed the other Thunder defenders to stay home on shooters. OKC allowed just seven attempts on corner three-pointers. In theory, this is a great strategy.

Here’s the problem with that and where the Rockets adjusted beautifully to this strategy. The Thunder didn’t stop the Rockets from getting into the paint. Houston usually takes about 35.6 percent of their shots in the restricted area. They make 64.6 percent of those shots. In Game 1, that rose to 39.6 of their attempts coming at the rim with a success rate of 77.8 percent.

The Rockets killed the Thunder inside. Mike D’Antoni said that since the Thunder were staying home on the shooters outside, the Rockets decided to take shots at the rim. Those are the two types of shots they want to take — shots at the rim or three-pointers. Instead of just wildly launching three-pointer after three-pointer, they decided to be the bigger, better team at the rim.

OKC has to find a way to shrink those attempts into the middle of the floor. Otherwise, the Rockets will feast enough inside to crack OKC on the perimeter. If that downpour from the perimeter starts happening, the Thunder won’t just need Westbrook to throw up one of those 50-point triple-doubles. They’ll need a new priest, an old priest, and a lot of holy water to exorcise everything the Rockets throw at them.

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