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Game Day: Rockets vs. Thunder

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 104-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston's matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder:

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

- Who could have possibly guessed that one of the Rockets’ most scintillating halves of basketball would begin like this? Houston didn’t quite fall behind 13-0 like it did the last time the team faced Oklahoma City, but the Thunder’s 11-4 blitz to begin the game sure seemed awfully ominous at the time. OKC hit its first five shots from the field as Serge Ibaka connected both from mid-range and at the rim.

In fact, the Rockets looked rather overhwhelmed for a good chunk of the opening period until this happened:

Up until Harden unleashed the hammer of the gods upon his former team, the Thunder’s collective length, athleticism and versatility was the most awe-inspiring presence in the building. Then Harden reared back and rocked the rim (and Ibaka) with a slam that sent a jolt into both his team and its fans. Calling it a jolt actually undersells that particular jam. It was more like a hopped-up hoops cocktail combining enough basketball caffeine to wake Dr. James Naismith himself.

Look, I’m of the old school opinion that dunks are overrated and overplayed. They dominate the highlight shows (understandably so, but still) when approximately 18 million things factor far more into every game’s end result. But every once in awhile, even a curmudgeon like myself can cop to the fact that some slams seemingly carry with them supernatural powers capable of temporarily changing the game. This was one such jam. The Rockets immediately embarked upon a 7-0 run and announced their presence for the first time this evening.

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One other note on that dunk and then I promise I’m done: Harden's not a huge leaper and he doesn't possess much variety when it comes to his dunking. But that one-handed tomahawk of his sure gets the job done more often than not. It’s a crowd-pleaser; as well it should be given the unique aesthetic virtue it contains.

- Aaron Brooks was a true game-time decision tonight as he continues to deal with knee tendonitis. In retrospect, however, we all should have know he was a lock to play given the presence of all-around NBA nemesis Derek Fisher. Fans, of course, will remember Brooks’ playoff torching of Fisher during the 2009 playoffs, and AB reprised that routine in the first half, draining Houston’s first triple of the night and 3-of-4 overall during the opening two periods of play.

- Speaking of players remembering playoff foes from the past, Kevin Durant sure seemed to recall that Francisco Garcia enjoyed some limited success while doggedly defending KD during their postseason matchup last year. Durant exploded for 9 of his 13 first quarter points during the final 1:30 of the period – all while Garcia drew the unenviable task of attempting to slow the league’s leading scorer. Four of those points came via two of the more vicious, vitriol-filled jams you’re likely to see anytime soon.

- The surest sign that something special was about to unfold for Houston in the first half: Donatas Motiejunas draining a 3 to snap the NBA’s longest active 3-point drought – D-Mo had missed his previous 14 3s before knocking one down toward the end of the first quarter. Then Motiejunas went full on stretch-four for the rest of the half, splashing two more from deep during a second quarter that saw the Rockets rain in a remarkable nine (yes, NINE) 3-pointers. Houston finished the first half 12-of-20 from beyond the arc, earning them a stupefying 36-0 edge in point differential from downtown during the opening 24 minutes.

With Harden shimmying before shooting (and sinking) his 3s, D-Mo raining them in and Brooks partying like it was 2009, the Rockets reeled off a 21-4 run that nearly blew the top of Toyota Center. Keep in mind, Houston was doing this to the third-best defense in the league, providing fans with a remarkable glimpse into the Rockets’ explosive offensive potential when the ball is flying from side to side and the 3s are falling. Of course, it also shone a light on what makes the club’s recent stretch of sluggish, stagnant efforts so confounding.

All told, the Rockets racked up 73 first-half points less than a week after finishing with 80 points total during a road loss to Atlanta. And as for those 12 first-half triples, heck, I’m all but certain thatHouston didn’t drain 12 3s over the entire month of December. When it rains it pours, I guess.

Then again, perhaps this was all merely a way of revealing one of the hidden tenets of Moreyball: Thou shalt reserve all 3-point binges for nationally televised games against elite competition. It worked Christmas Day in San Antonio and obviously paid big dividends during tonight’s first half. Seems like a pretty sound way to ensure playoff success, that’s for sure.

- But then, the second half. Oof. Rarely will you encounter two so completely disparate halves of basketball all within the same contest. Serge Ibaka set a suffocating defensive tone right from the opening minutes of the third quarter as he assumed sole ownership of the paint. His rim protection was out of this world and he nearly singlehandedly ensured that Houston’s forays in that direction would end with little more than disappointment and dejection (and rejection, for that matter).

With the paint shut off and points suddenly becoming difficult to come by, the Rockets needed more of those 3s to fall; perhaps not as plentifully as they did in the first half – no one could be quite that greedy could they? – but they certainly at least required a sprinkling of 3-point splashes here and there. Alas, that well was shut off to them, too.

As a result, minute by minute Oklahoma City methodically worked its way back into the game. The Thunder weren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard either, but they hardly had to, such was Houston’s sudden scoring allergy. And so, by the time Durant sank an absurdly outlandish triple of his own at the third quarter buzzer, OKC had tied the game. The Rockets’ point total for the period: a measly 10. Little did Houston know that things were only about to get worse. 

The Rockets hung around for a while in the final frame, employing some sound defense of their own to maintain a pulse. But when Durant and Jackson drained three consecutive ridiculously high degree of difficulty shots toward the latter stages of the quarter – the last of which coming via Jackson’s banked-in, shot clock buzzer-beating 3 – the jig was up. Houston simply couldn’t put any more points on the board. To be sure, the Rockets had recently salvaged several contests courtesy of some rather remarkable late-game heroics. But repeating that feat against an elite team that was by now utterly and irrevocably locked-in on defense was simply too tall a task, especially with Ibaka playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

- Speaking of exceedingly tall tasks, one has to wonder just how much juice Houston had left in its tank after putting the finishing touches on a four-game road trip that saw the team expend an exorbitant amount of energy in rallying to win the final night in New Orleans. Chandler Parsons played 45 minutes in that contest, then had to defend Durant less than 24 hours later.

I get it: No one wants to hear the fatigue excuse. And take absolutely nothing away from Oklahoma City. After getting torched in the first half, their defense sunk its claws into Houston and never let go. They were extraordinary. KD was KD. And Ibaka was incredible. But this is why it's so very important to take care of business against inferior competition. You can't blow bad teams out of the water every time out. But if Houston's players hadn't had to empty their already overly-taxed energy reserves in the Big Easy, maybe just maybe they would have had a little more lift on their shots and bounce in their steps during tonight's second half. We'll never know.

The ugly numbers from the evening: Houston set a franchise low by scoring just 19 points in the second half. The team went 0-of-14 from 3 and shot less than 20 percent from the field overall during the final two periods of play. And the Thunder rolled 104-92.

The Rockets fell to 26-15 with the loss. They return to action Saturday night when the Milwaukee Bucks pay a visit to Toyota Center. 

NOTES AND QUOTES

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On the difference in the second half) “We got more stagnant. We came out and missed some shots. We had some good looks early in the third quarter. We missed some layups. Had some layups blocked right at the rim. It seemed like our offense just at that point couldn't make anything. We couldn't make a basket. We couldn't sustain anything. We had some silly turnovers during that stretch. We had some run outs but we just got stagnant after awhile with people trying to do it on their own, which we can't do. When the ball moves we are a lot better. We defended plenty. They (Thunder) had 45 (points) in the second half. We had a lot of holes and consecutive holes where we couldn't get out and run. We couldn't score. We had a terrible time shooting the ball, laying it in, making simple plays. We couldn't sustain anything offensively in the second half. Give them credit. They got out and got after us.”

(On sustaining pace in the second half) “We did not have the pace that we had in the first half. We were getting the ball moving and we really had much better pace in the first half. We just didn't sustain our pace in the second half.”

(On 3-point shooting in the second half) “They were switching stuff and we didn't drive the switch and move the ball and make them pay on that by driving and making them double, which we did in the first half when we kicked it out. The ball got way too stagnant.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On what happened in the second half) “They got some shots to fall. We played hard but we just didn't get it going a little bit like we wanted to but they got a couple of shots at the end of the game.”

(On the Rockets shots selection in the second half) “We didn't get shots. We missed layups, a couple of errant turnovers in transition that we could have converted on. Just small things.”

(On Oklahoma's size and how it affected the Rockets game in the paint) “We got good shots like I said. We just missed a couple of easy buckets around the rim and towards the end of the game they made a couple of lucky shots and that was the game right there.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the Rockets scoring 19 points only in the second half) “They (Thunder) played pretty good defense. Everybody did their assignment.”

(On his level of frustration) “The game is over with. I'm not going to make any excuses. They came out and played good and we didn't and they got a good win.”

(On the officiating) “There is a lot of stuff I want to say but next game we have to be better and I've got to be better. We gave them confidence tonight and in order for us to be good against a team like this, we've got to step it up. Tonight wasn't good for us.”

JEREMY LIN

(On what went wrong in the second half) “I don't know. I think we kind of ran out of gas a little bit. I think we played with great energy in the first half. We played hard tonight. Everybody who stepped on that floor played really hard and at that point that's all you can ask for.”

(On Oklahoma City's defense) “I think they did a great job in making good adjustments. We didn't get as many open anything in the second half. It just seemed like we were working a lot harder and I've got to go back and look (at the film).”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the loss) “It's a tough loss. They are a really good team and they hit some tough shots but we could have easily won that game. We stopped playing the right way. Our offense in the second half was not very good. You've got to give them credit though, they hit some big shots. We played extremely hard and we had multiple chances to win the game. We missed a lot of shots that we normally make. It was one of those nights.”

(On what changed to cause the Rockets to not play as well) “Our offense just wasn't flowing. We weren't getting out in transition. We were missing a lot of open shots, a lot of bunnies at the rim that we usually make. It just wasn't flowing nearly as good as it was in the first half with cutters and extra passes and things like that.”

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER COACH SCOTT BROOKS

(On the first half/second half difference) ”I’ve never seen anything like that; 73 points and than 19 points. I don’t know if that has ever happened. I know most of you didn’t go to UC Irvine, but that is a fifty four point difference. I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s inspiring, but it is also kind of like an NBA season – ups and downs.  This game, giving up so many points, and then locking up on the defensive end, and allowing them zero three’s, is kind of like the ups and downs of the season.  We’ve had some moments where we haven’t played to our standards, but we still just kept chipping away and figuring out ways to keep getting better.  I thought yesterday’s film session was good, I thought today’s shoot around was good, and it parlayed that into a good all-around effort  Other than their three’s that they hit in the first half, but I don’t know what more you could have done.  Houston hit some tough shots and that’s what they do.”

(On what was his halftime speech)  “A couple of things.  We showed them every three (Houston made).  There were mistakes, there was some good effort and there were some tough shots.  We knew that if were going to stay in this game, we knew that we were going to half to clean up the three point line.  I told them, “We scored enough points to win this game in the first half.””

(On Reggie Jackson’s play) “Reggie was really good.  When Reggie gets guys involved and locks up on the defensive end, he makes us a better team.  I thought he did a good job with his hands.  He did a good job of staying engaged on the defensive end, but he got everybody involved.  He didn’t have a lot of assists, but he got us into our offensive pattern every time down the court.  Those are the areas we have been working on the past couple of weeks.”

KEVIN DURANT

(On the first half vs. second half) “We got so lost in the game.  We didn’t realize it.  We got in the locker room and we decided that we would just take it, a possession at a time. It was special to see everybody play for each other and not worry about who gets the shot don’t worry about miss-shots, and we didn’t let it affect our defense. We were able to come down and stifle them a little bit, and get them out of their rhythm.  They are a great offensive team.  They score the ball so quickly, but we did a great job of putting pressure on them. Our bigs did a great job on Howard, and we were able to get a good win.”

(On whether their second halves play was more about pride) “They hit 12 threes.  They were on fire from the three, but it is really hard to sustain that in this league to keep hitting from the three point line.  We covered the paint, and we made them shoot tough shots.  On the second, we were able to contest the three’s, rebound the basketball and offensively, we moved the ball and got good looks on offense.  We just stuck with it.”

REGGIE JACKSON

(On the first half/second half) “No, definitely not that I can recall.  We were just back there talking about that.  We were happy with the way that we competed in the second half, but we played a good team and we were able to lock in and do the things we needed to defensively. It worked tonight, but we know we have to move on and get ready for tomorrow. ”

(On the fourth quarter spark) “It was just about the team concept and we played well tonight.  I was fortunate enough to get five quick baskets early in the fourth, but we were just trying to do things collectively.  I had the hot hand and we just wanted our guys to be aggressive.  Some shots went in tonight and we were really happy with what we were doing on the defensive end.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,231 tonight, giving the Rockets 20 sellouts on the season. The Rockets recorded a total of 20 sellouts during the entire 2012-13 regular season.

The Rockets were a tale of two halves in a 104-92 loss to the Thunder tonight. The Rockets are the first NBA team in the shot-clock era to post at least 70 points in the first half, and then score less than 20 in the second half.

Houston scored its most points in any half this season with 73 to open the game, but followed it up with a franchise-low 19 points in the second half. The previous low for a half was 24 in the first half at San Antonio (11/13/01) and 24 in the second half vs. New Orleans (1/19/12). The 19-point half also tied for the second fewest points scored in a second half in NBA annals.

The Rockets recorded a season-high 73 first-half points on 26-of-46 (.565) shooting, which included a 12-of-20 (.600) performance from beyond the arc. It marked Houston’s first 70-point half since netting 72 second-half points last season vs. Dallas (3/3/13).

Houston also matched its best second-quarter output with 41 points off a 9-of-14 (.643) outing from downtown. The Rockets also went 8-of-13 (.615) from 3-point range in the first quarter last year vs. Oklahoma City (2/20/13).

The Rockets then came out of halftime with season lows of 10 third-quarter points and just nine points in the fourth quarter. The last time the Rockets scored fewer than 30 points in half and netted fewer than 10 points in quarter both came vs. New Orleans (1/19/12). Houston recorded just 24 points in the second half, including a seven-point fourth quarter.

Both Houston and Oklahoma City overcame double-digit deficits to take the lead tonight, with the Rockets rallying back from 12 points down and the Thunder rolling back from a 14-point hole.

James Harden finished with 16 points (6-16 FG), eight assists and seven rebounds tonight. Harden has now reached at least five assists in a game a team-

 Terrence Jones posted 16 points (6-12 FG, 4-6 FT), 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block tonight. Jones now has five double-doubles over the last eight games.

Donatas Motiejunas came off the bench with a season-high 15 points (6-9 FG) and a season-best seven rebounds tonight, which also including a career-high three 3-pointers made (3-4 3FG).

Kevin Durant topped the Thunder with 36 points (8-21 FG, 18-20 FT) and seven assists tonight. Durant has now scored 25-plus points 18 times against the Rockets in his career, including six 30-point outings.

Reggie Jackson collected 23 points (11-19 FG) and four assists tonight. Jackson has now scored in double figures 29 times on the season, including five 20-plus point outings.

Serge Ibaka registered 21 points (10-13 FG), a game-high 15 rebounds and five blocks tonight. Ibaka, who averaged 4.00 blocks per game against the Rockets in 2012-13, picked up his 17th double-double on the season.

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Oklahoma City Thunder (28-10) at Houston Rockets (26-14)

Point Differential:

Oklahoma City: +7.0 (NBA rank: 3rd)

Houston: +3.6 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 106.0 (7th)

Houston: 107.3 (6th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 98.2 (3rd)

Houston: 102.0 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Oklahoma City: 98.67 (6th)

Houston: 98.08 (8th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that's adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Oklahoma City: 50.5% (10th)

Houston: 53.0% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Oklahoma City: 15.9 (23rd)

Houston: 16.7 (28th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Oklahoma City: 52.9% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 26.6% (11th); defensive rebound rate: 76.1% (5th)

Houston: 51.6% (7th); offensive rebound rate: 26.8% (9th); defensive rebound rate: 73.1% (25th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Oklahoma City: .310 (5th)

Houston: .406 (1st)

Consider this a do-over. The last time Houston faced Oklahoma City, the Rockets entered having won three in a row thanks to a fourth quarter rally against the Pelicans the night before in a game that prominently featured some big plays down the stretch by Terrence Jones and James Harden. Sound familiar?

Of course we all know how things turned out 24 hours later in OKC: The Thunder rolled to a 117-86 romp, dooming the Rockets to one of their most lopsided losses of the season as Kevin Durant and Jeremy Lamb took turns hitting everything in sight while Houston's superstar duo of Harden and Dwight Howard combined for just 17 points. It took the Rockets more than six-and-a-half minutes just to get on the scoreboard that evening as Houston's players showed all the telltale signs of a team wrapping up a four-games-in-five-nights stretch. Fortunately the Rockets come into this game way more well rested since it's only their third game in four nights this time around. Oh well.

On a more serious note, whatever fatigue factors exist should at least be partially mitigated by the fact that Houston's players will no doubt have an ample amount of adrenaline flowing for a primetime, nationally televised tilt against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs a season ago. The Houston-OKC ties are both obvious and well documented so suffice to say motivation won't be an issue. Win tonight and the Rockets will have gone a long way in removing the bitter taste left behind by last month's loss while, more importantly, slicing OKC's edge in the conference standings to a mere two games.

As far as do-overs go, this one has all the makings of a doozy.

Know Thy Enemy

- Of course, you can't discuss the Thunder these days without spending a good chunk of time dissecting how they've been impacted by Russell Westbrooks' third knee surgery in eight months. Oklahoma City is 7-6 without its All-Star point guard this season while having compiled a sparkling 21-4 mark when he plays. During this most recent period without Westbrook, the Thunder are just 5-5 despite having played one of the softer schedules in the league during that stretch (ESPN.com's Hollinger Power Rankings list OKC as having faced the ninth-easiest slate in the NBA over the course of its last 10 games). Go figure, losing one of the league's 10 best players for a prolonged period of time tends to have an adverse affect on a team's fortunes.

Not surprisingly, the Thunder's offense is the area that has suffered the most sans Westbrook. With its absurdly explosive, mean-mugging floor general on the court, Oklahoma City has scored at a top-5 rate (107.6 points per 100 possessions to be precise). During this latest 10-game stretch, however, the Thunder's offense has been only slightly above average, posting an offensive efficiency rating of 103.9.

Make no mistake, Oklahoma City is still one heck of a team, mostly because they defend like demons (the Thunder have experienced very little defensive drop-off amid Westbrook's latest absence). But their full potential can't be unlocked until Russ returns with the key.    

- Is this the year Kevin Durant finally takes home an MVP trophy? As we near the midpoint of the season, he currently stands as the odds-on favorite due to both merit and voter fatigue (simply being the best player on the planet likely won't be enough for 4-time winner LeBron James to add to his trophy case this year). Now in his seventh NBA season (and yet he's still just 25-years-old!), Durant has never been better. His usage rate is at an all-time high, yet his turnover rate is the lowest it's ever been. He's rebounding and reading the floor at career-best levels. Like his go-go-gadget length, Durant's ceiling is seemingly limitless.

And while his team has struggled of late, the same can't be said of KD; over the course of his last 10 games, Durant is averaging more than 34 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists per game. The only thing that's been a bit wonky during that stretch has been his 3-point touch as he's hit less than 32 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Durant is an offensive mage in every respect, not the least of which lies in is his ability to get to the line at will. His 10 free throw attempts per game average leads the NBA, setting up a showdown of the top-three players in that category as Dwight Howard (9.5) and James Harden (9.1) are right on his tail.

- Obviously any minutes during which Durant receives a breather will be huge for the Rockets, though taking advantage of the Thunder in his absence has been easier said than done this season. Over the course of the 2013-14 campaign to date, OKC's net rating when Durant sits is actually +10.9 per 100 possessions, primarily because the Thunder have played Pacers-esque defense during those stretches. Rather remarkably, Oklahoma City has taken its stinginess to even more staggering levels during the last 10 games: over that time, the Thunder's defensive rating when Durant rests is 86.7, resulting in a net rating of +15.6.

Those minutes are obviously few and far between given the fact Durant plays nearly 38 minutes per game – the seventh-highest such mark in the league. But it's a testament to OKC's depth and defensive diligence that the Thunder have been able to so swimmingly keep their heads above water this far this season while their best player grabs a breather.

- The Rockets love to force opponents into making a living off mid-range jumpers, but few teams are better equipped to do so than are the Thunder. Only the Portland Trailblazers connect at a higher rate (42.9 percent) on their mid-range shots than does OKC (42.5 percent) thanks in large part to the mid-range marksmanship of the Thunder's Big Three of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The latter's inclusion on that list might come as a surprise to some as the public at large probably associates him more with his highlight worthy swats and slams. But Ibaka has put in a ton of time in an effort to transform himself into a pick-and-pop threat and his mid-range hit rate of 44.7 percent is not only better than that of Durant or Westbrook, but also higher than the mark posted by Portland's master of the mid-range, LaMarcus Aldridge.

- In the spotlight

Should tonight's contest remain close entering the final frame, the stage will be set for what would be a delightful matchup between two of the league's finest fourth quarter scorers. After James Harden's late-game heroics last night, Houston's All-Star two-guard is now tied with Golden State's Steph Curry for the league lead in fourth quarter points per game (7.7). Durant, meanwhile, is hot on their heels, averaging 7.3 per contest. 

Harden has saved his best for last often this season, as seen by the fact that his shooting percentages have soared in the final period. The 24-year-old has hit more than 52 percent of his fourth quarter shots to date and a remarkable 48.7 percent of his 3s (by contrast, Durant is averaging 43.8 and 32.1 percent in those two categories, respectively). Harden has also gone to the line 3.1 times per game in the fourth quarter; a mark topped only by Howard's 3.7 fourth quarter free throw attempts per contest.  

Injury Update

Aaron Brooks (knee tendonitis) and Greg Smith (knee) are game-time decisions. Omer Asik (knee) and Patrick Beverley (hand) are out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.