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Game Day: Rockets at Thunder

Analysis and observations from Houston's 117-86 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Rockets vs. Thunder
    Kevin Durant leads the charge with 33 points and Jeremy Lamb chips in 22 points as the Thunder top the Rockets at home 117-86.
  • Halfcourt Heave
    Francisco Garcia forces the turnover and Aaron Brooks nails the runner from past halfcourt to end the third quarter.

HOUSTON - The Rockets had done well while digging themselves out of deep early holes during their past two games. They found another gear in the fourth quarter and used fantastic finishing kicks to record come-from-behind victories over Memphis and New Orleans.

Rockets/Thunder

But as if there ever existed any doubt (and there most assuredly did not), this much was made abundantly clear Sunday night: The Thunder are not to be confused with the likes of the Grizzlies and Pelicans, and Oklahoma City’s basketball juggernaut proceeded to hammer that point home all night long. The Thunder began the game with a 13-0 run, then bettered that mark with a 15-0 blitz near the start of the third quarter en route to running away from the Rockets while recording a 117-86 victory.

To be sure, Houston was done no favors by being forced to face the Thunder during a grueling stretch of the schedule that saw the Rockets play their fifth game in seven nights. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of their shots missed the mark and their defensive rotations seemed a step (or two) slow for much of the evening. Fatigue and the accompanying heavy legs almost certainly played a factor in Houston’s lopsided loss.

But make no mistake: Oklahoma City earned every ounce of this win. Their defense forced the Rockets into a bevy of bad shots, they seemingly turned every miss and turnover into a high percentage transition opportunity and their offense operated like a well-oiled machine, even while playing without the services of their All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook. Of course, having a ‘fall-back’ option like Kevin Durant (33 points) and receiving a career-night from former Rocket Jeremy Lamb (22 points) will more often than not go a long way toward covering up any blemishes that might appear in Westbrook’s absence.

Those two were brilliant Sunday night and their spectacular performances demanded that Houston be at its very best if it was to have any chance whatsoever to head home from Oklahoma City with a victory. Such excellence eluded the Rockets right from the opening tip. Subsequently, so too did any hope for a happy ending.  

“We were bad tonight,” Kevin McHale said bluntly after the game. “But give them credit: they played well, they had a good game and between Lamb and Durant they just shot the hell out of it against us. We couldn't stop them, we couldn’t run, we had nothing.”

OBSERVATIONS

- The tone for tonight’s game was set right from the start when Houston missed its first 12 shots from the field, enabling Oklahoma City to sprint away from the Rockets with a 13-0 lead. Houston went scoreless for more than six minutes before it came away with its first bucket, offering up a resounding reminder that while the Thunder’s offense takes a big hit without Westbrook on the floor, Oklahoma City can still defend like demons without him.

Keep in mind, OKC entered tonight’s game ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency. In fact, the Thunder are the only team in the league ranked in the top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Little wonder, then, that outside of the beat-down they received at the hands of Indiana’s historically great D, Oklahoma City’s defensive showing Sunday night was the best Houston has seen so far this season.

Yes, the Rockets had road weary legs. But Houston got very little in the way of quality looks at the basket during the opening stages of the game, and the Thunder’s swarming defense had a heck of a lot to do with that.

- Lost in the carnage of an opening period that saw the Rockets produce their lowest first quarter point total (14) of the season was the fact that Houston actually played some pretty decent defense themselves for much of the game’s first dozen minutes. Then again, shooting 5-of-24 from the field – as the Rockets did during the first quarter – makes it awfully tough to find even pewter linings in other aspects of the game.

- More unfortunate for Houston was the fact that its solid defensive effort didn’t hold up too terribly long. Oklahoma City hit 12 of its 19 shots in the second quarter and then trumped that production during the third period when the Thunder rang up 34 points on the Rockets.

The latter quarter actually began on a promising note for Houston when Chandler Parsons drilled a corner 3 to beat the shot clock on the opening possession of the half to trim the Rockets’ deficit to nine. That was as close as they would get the rest of the evening, however. Durant answered with a triple of his own, kick starting a 15-0 Thunder run that had Houston hopelessly inquiring into the services of Miracle Max.  A large percentage of OKC’s shots were of the wide-open and uncontested variety during that game-defining run, sending the strongest signal yet that the Rockets’ energy reserves were on empty.

- There were, however, two Houston highlights during the second half. The first was the play of Aaron Brooks, who led the team by scoring 17 points in 23 minutes off the bench, including a nothing-but-net half-court heave to end the third quarter. Then in the final frame, Isaiah Canaan checked in and immediately flattened Derek Fisher on a drive to the basket, instantly transforming himself into a huge fan favorite in Houston and in the homes of all right-minded Americans nationwide.   

- Speaking of the Rockets’ reserves, Houston came into the night knowing it would likely need a big boost from its bench if it were to have a chance to knock off the Thunder this evening. Brooks, as previously mentioned, did his part. So, too, did Casspi, who scored 15. But against elite teams especially, it’s probably never a good sign when the Rockets’ bench outscores the club’s starters 46-40 as they did tonight.

- Kevin Durant just had one of those nights (this just in: he has A LOT of those). The man was simply unstoppable Sunday, racking up 33 points with absolute ease while hauling in 13 rebounds and dishing out five assists. He was masterful.

- Westbrook’s replacement wasn’t too shabby, either. Reggie Jackson played very well in Westbrook’s absence against the Rockets in the playoffs last year, averaging 17.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in his four starts – numbers that were quite comparable to tonight’s line of 16 points, 8 assists and 3 rebounds.

- Houston’s record falls to 21-12 with this evening’s loss. The good news: After their New Year’s Eve date with Sacramento Tuesday night, the Rockets will finally be done with their most game-intensive stretch of the 2013-14 schedule – a run that will have seen Houston play six games in nine days smack dab in the middle of the holiday season.

Now for the not-so-good news: the next time the Rockets play OKC the game will be in Houston (January 16), but it will once again be on the second night of a back-to-back, it will be Houston's third game in four nights, and it will represent the Rockets’ first game back in H-Town following the conclusion of the club’s four-game road trip (*shakes fist at scheduling gods*). Oh well. Welcome to life in the NBA, kids. 

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS HEAD COACH KEVIN McHALE

Opening statement:

“We didn’t play really well the whole night …We went east and west with the ball and only had eight assists all night long. There were open guys and we didn’t hit them early. We couldn’t find a line-up that worked.”

On Oklahoma City’s defense:

“You have to move the ball and attack side to side. We held the ball way too much. They’re a good defensive team but you still have to attack. We couldn’t find anything tonight, we couldn’t find the spark and we were just bad from start to finish.”

On Oklahoma City’s offense:

“They were making shots and compressing our defense back into the paint, we had no ball pressure and couldn’t stop [Reggie] Jackson at the start of the game. From there they were just going downhill on us, they had run outs where we weren’t matched up and like I said we were bad tonight. We give them credit, they played well and had a good game. They came out and between [Jeremy] Lamb and [Kevin] Durant they shot the hell out of it against us but we couldn’t stop them, we couldn’t run, we had nothing.”

JEREMY LIN

On Houston’s slow start:

“It definitely didn’t help that we got off to a slow start. They did a great job of hitting shots and getting stops. I think anytime you do that you’re climbing uphill the rest of the night.”

On ball movement:

“I think the ball needs to move, we really need to play right to left, strong side, weak side, move the ball and let the ball find whoever is open. I thought tonight we did get some good shots but we didn’t knock down shots like we normally do. They did a great job of smothering us and making us uncomfortable.”

JAMES HARDEN

On Oklahoma City’s defense:

“They’re a pretty good defensive team, especially when you can keep the ball on one side. They’re great at using their hands and being active. Their bigs were doing a good job of really pressuring as well.”

On the game:

“It wasn’t good at all, we just looked tired out there. This is four [games] out of five nights for us. We were looking kind of sluggish out there and we didn’t have our mojo like we needed to.”

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER HEAD COACH SCOTT BROOKS

Opening Statement:

“Well defensively, I thought our guys really locked in. We set the tone of the basketball game on the defensive end. When going into the game we did not want to give up transition points or shots, and I don’t think they had many going into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter they had a few. Offensively, it seemed like every bucket scored in that first quarter was assisted, which was good to see. Twenty-eight assists only on a few turnovers throughout the game, but I thought both ends of the floor. Jeremy (Lamb) was really good tonight also. He did a really good job getting the set-ups and coming off the screens hard and we did a good job setting screens. We can’t leave out Perkins; he did a good  job of making Howard’s shot tough and also making his catches difficult. I thougth he did a good job really using his strength and his body.”

On Kevin Durant:

“I can mention him every game and every day, he’s great to be around. His rebounds - thirteen rebounds tonight, but he has been rebounding for years now. Also his defense; he really locked in defensively, he wasn’t giving up any open shots. He was chasing down their guys off of screens and he did a good job of switching when we did switch him… He really locked in on the defensive end. Offensively, he is going to have games like this quite often, we know what he does offensively but the energy he had on the defensive end was outstanding tonight.”

On holding Houston scoreless for over the first 6 minutes and the defense throughout the game:

“We played good defense, and they missed some shots. But we played good defense. You don’t go into games thinking that the team is not going to score for that long of a stretch, but we did play some good defense. Our guys really got into the basketball. They got into the jump shot, they got into the pass, and they did a good job of blocking out. Our rebounds were 49 and 38. And they had nine offensive rebounds in the first half and only two in the second. Those are things I’m proud of our guys with. They play hard. They play hard every night. Never have to worry about guys not competing. They compete because they know that’s what our team does.”

KEVIN DURANT

On tonight’s game:

“I never want to take this game for granted. Every time I step onto that floor it’s a blessing. Giving it my all and playing as hard as I can, have fun with it, no matter who is out there on that floor or playing against us. Tonight is just another team and I just wanted to play my heart out for my guys.”

On your level of play:

“I am not one of those guys that can turn it on or turn it off…Offensively, of course, I may have a hot streak here and there but just want to keep the same intensity level every time I step onto the court. Just try to do what I can for my team.”

DEREK FISHER

On the tone the Thunder set early in the game:

“We felt it was important to set the tone from the start of tonight’s game. Without Russell on the floor playing with energy and pace is very important to do and I felt we did that to start the game tonight.”

On this season:

“Just enjoying every moment, the good and the bad, and embracing the challenges and adversities and just continuing to push through. I think we have a fantastic team, we have a chance to be really really good this year. For me as a veteran, just continuing to lead by example and show physical and mental toughness through all situations.”

On Kevin Durant:

“Everything that you need and you want your best player to be, that’s what he is. That makes it easy for the rest of us to follow his lead.”