In what will go down as one of the best games of the first round of these NBA playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder took down the Houston Rockets, 119-117. It was a scintillating, back-and-forth affair, but ultimately, the Thunder were able to come out on top to cut their series deficit down to 2-1.
Oklahoma City has been waiting for a game like this all series — all three of their standout guards were fantastic, and James Harden got slowed down just enough that he could not fully impose his will on the game. As a result, the Thunder are not one game away from going home. Here are three takeaways from this heavyweight battle.
En Garde Guard(s)
Oklahoma City has built its team around a trio of guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul, and Dennis Schröder. All three were, in one way or another, fantastic on Saturday night.
Schröder had the most productive game of the bunch, coming off the bench and ending the game as Oklahoma City’s leading scorer. While he struggled from deep, going 2-for-10 from three, the Umlaut scored 29 points on 10-for-23 shooting. He pitched in five rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals for good measure. He’s been one of the league’s best reclamation projects this year, going from an empty calories player in Atlanta, to an ok but not outstanding member of the Thunder’s roster last year, to a legitimately dangerous sixth man. If Oklahoma City goes on to win this series, his play off the bench will be a major reason why.
Gilgerous-Alexander stuffed the stat sheet as well. He scored 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting and recorded seven rebounds, six assists, and four steals. When he was relied on at the end of regulation to come up big, Gilgeous-Alexander was as cool, calm, and collected as ever, hoisting up a corner three and getting nothing but net.
And then, there is Paul, who despite being 35 is still incredibly good at finding ways to impose his will on games. He is Oklahoma City’s metronome, masterfully dictating the tempo of games. Down the stretch of this one, the ball was put in his hands and he delivered, as evidenced by his 26 points on 11-for-20 shooting, six rebounds, and five assists. When the team needed a bucket at the end of regulation, he dissected the Rocket defense and found Gilgeous-Alexander for the above triple. And in classic Chris Paul fashion, when it was dagger time, he did this.
Oklahoma City’s guards are unreal. They need to impose themselves against these small-ball Rockets, and for the first time all series, all three were locked in.
The Luguentz Dort Show
One guard from Arizona State imposed their will on another guard from Arizona State. Surprisingly, this did not mean that James Harden had a monster night and toyed with Luguentz Dort, the rookie who has been thrust into a role as the team’s most physical perimeter defender. Instead, this happened.
Dort held Harden to 3-14 shooting.
— Chris Williamson (@CWilliamson44) August 23, 2020
Dort is 6’3, 215 pounds, and totally unafraid to mix things up. Calling him a subpar offensive player right now is accurate — nine points on 3-for-10 shooting and 0-for-6 from three — but he’s willing to battle and impose his will. This was evident in the eight rebounds he pulled down and the three blocks he registered, and even more evident in how unafraid he was to battle against Harden.
If you are checking Harden and you go into games thinking that you’re going to completely shut him down, you’re going to get demoralized. Dort never wavered, he did whatever he could to make Harden work for everything, and as a result, Harden had a not great game that played a role in the Thunder coming out on top.
Anyway, speaking of Harden…
James Harden’s Not Great Games Are Still Insane
Harden fouled out with just over four minutes left in overtime. He went 3-for-13 from three and connected on 44.4 percent of his field goal attempts on the night. He got pushed around by Dort, whose strength and athleticism has made him the team’s dedicated Harden stopper. His team collapsed after he fouled out for the first time this season, leading to the Oklahoma City win.
And yet despite all of this, Harden scored 38 points, doled out eight assists, and hauled in seven rebounds.
Listen, I understand that the way the Rockets play inherently leads to Harden putting up big numbers, but it is still extremely hard to do this sort of thing in an NBA game. He’s reached the point where his nights where he’s just a little bit off are still remarkable, and if Houston goes on to win this series while Russell Westbrook is sidelined, it will be because Harden keeps carrying the Rockets.