The Houston Rockets dominated the first two games of their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder and for those of us that had talked up how OKC would be a tough out for anyone in the postseason, there was a bit of concern that they might be a bit over their head.
However, the Thunder have bounced back to win the last two games, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s been very on-brand basketball for an OKC team that grinds teams down opponents. The Thunder weathered the Rockets storm in the third quarter and pulled their way back into the game behind strong backcourt play from Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder, who combined for 56 points in a 117-114 win.
As the series now moves on to a pivotal Game 5 with the teams deadlocked at 2-2, here are our takeaways for what will make the difference moving forward.
1. Keep the focus on justice
Monday’s game was thrilling, with Paul and Schröder out-dueling Harden and company late, hitting big shots and free throws to even things at 2-2, but after the game, Paul wanted to open his walk-off interview by keeping the focus on what’s important — and what the players stated mission was as they were restarting the season at an inflection point in history — after police shot Jacob Blake in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
"I'ma challenge all my NBA guys … let's try to get our entire teams registered to vote."
CP3 had a message after the Thunder win ✊ pic.twitter.com/faBGl14XNn
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 24, 2020
Players from around the league have spoken out about the continued anger and frustration felt seeing yet another unarmed Black man shot by police. It’s the continued reminder of the systemic issues facing Black Americans and as Paul noted, a reminder of why players wanted to use their platforms in Orlando. They’re doing that and it’s up to all of us to speak up as well, shining light on injustice and racism and doing what we can in our communities and at the polls to try and see a change occur in this country.
2. The Thunder’s three-guard monster is waking up
As for the basketball, it took a couple games for the Thunder’s trio of guards to figure out how to probe and attack the Rockets ultra-switching defense, but lately it seems like Paul, Schröder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are cracking the code. They had a combined 74 points, 19 rebounds, and 11 assists on Monday afternoon, and maybe most importantly they limited the turnovers to just six combined — and OKC had just 14 as a team. The Houston defense thrives on chaos and make their small-ball system work by forcing turnovers to balance out made shots by opponents. That wasn’t the case Monday and it’s because the Thunder are finding a balance in moving the ball and also attacking mismatches in isolation.
Late in the game, they didn’t panic when the game got close and even when Houston took a late lead. Instead, the steady hands of Chris Paul and the suddenly stoic Schröder found themselves in matchups they like, got to their spot off the dribble, and knocked down clutch buckets.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) August 24, 2020
It was an impressive performance by Oklahoma City in Game 4 to even things up and they have to be feeling confident going forward. The addition of Luguentz Dort has shifted their defensive success tremendously — evidenced best by his denial of Harden on a late inbounds that led to a woeful Jeff Green heave to help the Thunder ice the game — but on offense they will live and die with the performance of their backcourt trio. After two games of trying to find their footing, those three seem to be in rhythm and the Thunder have to feel pretty good about their chances.
3. It is, indeed, a make or miss league
The old adage is always relevant in the modern NBA, but never more applicable than in Houston games where they fire away from three no matter how things are going. At one point, that led them to hitting eight straight threes to open up a 15-point advantage in the third quarter.
Gordon lighting it up in the 3rd pic.twitter.com/wrSPpvICIT
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) August 24, 2020
But the law of averages caught up to them and they then had a stretch where they went 3-for-23 from three-point range. The biggest of those misses came from P.J. Tucker late, as he was off on a wide open corner three that could’ve tied the game at 114-114 with under 30 seconds to go.
It is always how it is with the Rockets, whose refusal to budge from their system even as things crash down around them is what makes the, arguably, the NBA’s most human team. Their complete and total dedication to what they do and full belief that, ultimately, it will take them where they need to go leads to unbelievable highs and historic lows. Sadly for Houston, Monday was the latter as they set a playoff record with 58 threes taken, making a strong 23 of the, but still coming out with a loss to a Thunder team that was just 11-of-32 from distance.
The only thing we know is that on Wednesday, they’ll try it all again, hoisting three after three and hope this time, enough go in.