That was an old-fashioned beatdown.
The Rockets learned quickly Sunday night about playoff basketball as Russell Westbrook (19 points, 10 boards, 8 assists in 30 minutes) ran circles around the Rockets and the Thunder rolled to a 120-91 Game 1 win.
There were a number of problems for the Rockets in this one, and I want to be clear that there wasn’t a single issue that was the reason for this loss alone, so this is not a finger-pointing session. The Rockets will need to improve on 3-4 major issues if they’re going to have any chance to win even one game.
Harden and the Three-Point Shooters
I wrote about this before the series, but these two main cogs of the Houston Rocket offense struggled down the stretch of the regular season. Harden was shooting in the sub-40’s inside the arc and the Rockets’ three-point percentage in their final 17 games was one of the worst in the league.
Both trends continued in this game. Harden was 6-19 from the field (just 1-6 from the floor in the second half) and the Rockets were a pathetic 8-36 from downtown (22.2%).
Done deal. OKC can sleepwalk through the game and still come out victorious with those Rocket numbers because that’s a dagger straight in the heart of their offense the way it’s designed. Both depend on each other as Harden’s efficiency in the paint opens up opportunities for shooters, and the shooters knocking down shots forces defenders to give up the paint and close out on the arc.
If this trend doesn’t change, this series will be an easy Thunder sweep, and that’s no bold prediction. But it also showed how this roster is incomplete and badly needs a second top scoring option. The Rockets will have to become a more efficient team in halfcourt sets, or switch gears and become a top notch defensive squad. No two ways about it — you’re not likely to see success in the playoffs without one or the other (and preferably, both).
Welcome to the Playoffs, Jeremy
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Jeremy Lin was horrible. It was like he was playing the Heat out there. He was 1-7 from the field for 4 points. He wasn’t aggressive offensively (6 of his 7 shots were from 20 feet out or farther — his one make was a layup), couldn’t hit the shots he did take and couldn’t take care of the ball. While Westbrook is carving up the defense with penetration, Lin is having no success on the other end doing the same. His highest numbers were fouls (5) and turnovers (4).
“We played terrible all the way across the board,” said Lin.
As cliche as this may sound, this was only one game and it was his first ever in the playoffs. Take a look at how bad Lin was in the preseason as he was adjusting to his new role. Ditto his early days trying to co-exist with Harden. He recovered from both slow starts and improved as time went on. He doesn’t have a long time to do it, but he’s a better player than this and I think this Game 1 experience will prove more valuable to Jeremy Lin than any other Rocket.
“He’ll be better next game, I’m sure,” said McHale. “He’s a tough kid. He bounces back.”
Stretching It Out
If you’re trying to go toe-to-toe on offense, I don’t think you will find a series that calls for the Rockets to have a stretch four more than this one. OKC’s starting power forward has the length and shotblocking ability of a center and playing Greg Smith heavy minutes — a big that has a max range of about 5 feet — keeps Serge Ibaka at or near the paint. That means that not only do Lin, Harden and Parsons have to beat their man to get to the basket, but they’ll have to contend with both Perkins and Ibaka once they get to the cup.
Take a look at the play with 6:15 left in the third. Harden blows past Sefolosha, but Ibaka stays home and disrupts the play. Harden didn’t notice that Ibaka’s man, Terrence Jones, was as wide open as you can get in the corner, 19 feet from the basket. That’s on James, but it’s also a personnel issue as Jones is not much of a threat from the outside (oh, he’s a willing shooter from out there, but not an efficient one).
Unless Greg Smith starts to wreck shop down low, expect to see a lot of SmallBall in this series.
What Went Right?
Not a lot worked, but no question the biggest bright spot for Houston was the play of Patrick Beverley.
As he’s done all season, Beverley was active and disruptive. Twice he knocked the ball from Westbrook’s hands as he was flying Mach 5 to the hoop and he also picked the ball cleanly from Reggie Jackson as he was simply bringing the ball across halfcourt (see the play). Final tally for Beverley was 11 points, 4 assists, 4 boards and 2 steals. Beverley is going to play a lot in this series, but if Lin doesn’t rebound and have an offensive impact in Game 2, his minutes may touch the thirties.
Also, Chandler Parsons’ early defense on Kevin Durant was promising. He held Durant to 1-4 shooting before some suspect foul calls gave Chandler his third foul before the half was out. Durant stepped up as Parsons sat down.
OKC won big, but it was a game they were expected to win. The Rockets did not exactly throw anything away here and they can still regroup.
“Believe it or not, I think this is good for us,” said Harden.
While I’m not sure I’d word it exactly that way, I do think this can serve as a wake-up call to this inexperienced Rockets team that the playoffs are no joke. As mentioned before the series, I’m still focused on “big picture” items more than a series victory and how the Rockets respond in Game 2 will serve as a teaching opportunity, and hopefully give Houston something to build on for their future.