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Game Day: Rockets vs. Thunder

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 111-107 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder

Rockets vs. Thunder - 04/04/2014

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

What a grind. That was the prevailing thought at halftime after watching the Rockets slug their way to a 50-45 lead over the Thunder. Oh, James Harden got his, scoring 17 points in the opening two periods of play – a number that precisely hit his per game scoring average against the Thunder this season. But, goodness gracious, nothing at all seemed to come easily. Even Kevin Durant, he of the Jordan-esque streak that had seen him reach at least 25 points in 39 consecutive games, scuffled and struggled his way to just nine points by the break – accomplished while turning the ball over four times as well.

In fact, Houston’s hyper-aggressive, trapping defense against Durant was likely the story of the half. With Chandler Parsons playing exceptionally well at the point of attack, the Rockets blitzed KD basically every time he touched the ball on the perimeter and made any sort of move toward the basket. The tactic proved very effective early, as the Thunder rarely made the Rockets pay. Yes, they knocked down a couple wide-open corner 3s and got the occasional layup from a rolling big man, but for the most part Houston’s game plan worked as well as one could have possibly hoped. At one point in the second quarter, Oklahoma City actually bricked 11 straight shots, allowing the Rockets to build their lead to as large as 14 points. And when Durant started getting frustrated and forced the action, he coughed up the ball multiple times while attempting to worm his way through the approaching double-teams relentlessly sent his way. (Note: Yes, this strategy was certainly made much easier due to the absence of Russell Westbrook, who was given the night off).

Still, Houston only managed to take a 5-point lead to the break in large part due the Thunder’s own defensive stinginess. In particular, Serge Ibaka was a one-man rim-protecting, shot-swatting machine, collecting four blocks in the first half while adversely affecting countless others with his incredible combination of length and bounce.

Ibaka wasn’t the only long, rangy and athletic power forward putting on a show in the first half, however. Terrence Jones, clearly feeling better after an illness took a massive toll on him earlier in the week, contributed 10 points, 8 boards and 2 blocks of his own during the first two quarters of play.

- In the night's biggest non-surprise, Omer Asik led all players in plus/minus at halftime with a +12. By this point, I’ve run out of ways to describe just how much the man impacts winning whenever he’s on the court. With Dwight Howard out again due to his lingering ankle issue, Asik has been nothing short of essential. But hopefully you knew that already.

- The Thunder began the third quarter, as they began the game, by essentially playing 4-on-5 on offense with Andre Roberson on floor, but apparently they're used to that due to their extensive experience playing with Kendrick Perkins. It certainly didn’t bother them at the start of the second half as the opened with a 9-2 run to seize the lead.  

And that marked the beginning of a period that stood in stark contrast to the slog that was the second quarter. Suddenly, Oklahoma City’s ball movement, spacing and shooting became impeccable, as the Thunder rolled up 39 points in the period, thanks in large part to a 6-of-10 showing from beyond the arc that included a banked-in triple by none other than Mr. Ibaka, who was beastly while tying his career-high with 27 points while also adding nine boards and six blocked shots.

Both teams took turns trading haymakers and highlight plays, putting on quite a show presuming hammer dunks, buzzer-beaters, blocks and facials are your thing. Fortunately for Houston, the Rockets finally generated a few stops toward the end of the period, allowing them just the opening they needed in order to hang around and head to the final frame down by a mere two points.

And Houston wasted little time building upon that momentum as the club began the fourth quarter by swishing three consecutive triples, the final coming courtesy of James Harden, who by that point had already produced the kind of numbers (31 points, six boards, seven assists) Durant has been putting up a nightly basis this season. Harden’s 3 also have Houston a glittering 12-of-24 mark from downtown at that point – a massive and essential development given the fact that Rockets came into the night having hit just 32 percent of their triples against OKC this season.

- Francisco Garcia is just loco enough to love playing against Durant and OKC. Man, does he relish this matchup. His 3-pointer with 2:41 left served as one of tonight’s signature shots, but his defense and tenacity when matched up against KD was really where he made his mark this evening. I mentioned the other night that Rockets players loathe playing Garcia one-on-one due to his go-go-gadget arms which give him a unique ability to contest shots and excel in mano-a-mano matchups. Perhaps that is why he has shown a knack for getting under the skin of the game’s most unstoppable one-on-one player in recent meetings. Durant got his, finishing with 28 points to stretch his streak to 40 (tying MJ in the process), but he finished just 7-of-19 from the field and was consistently frustrated by Garcia’s defense and refusal to give even an inch.

- Speaking of spectacular D, Omer Asik put on an absolute defensive clinic in the fourth quarter. He expertly stepped out to defend several midrange attempts by Durant, and produced perfect verticality to thwart a Caron Butler drive as well. He also corralled two hugely significant offensive rebounds down the stretch and was fouled immediately after each. He knocked down three of the four ensuring freebies from the charity stripes, putting the cap on yet another terrific performance from the Turkish big man.

- James Harden’s final numbers: 39 points, 9 boards, 7 assists and a 17-of-20 mark from the line. On a night when Houston needed its superstar to favorably produce something along the lines of the Thunder’s all-world celestial being, Harden delivered the goods and then some, lifting the Rockets to a desperately needed 111-107 win.

With the victory, Houston officially qualifies for the playoff and is now 50-25 on the season. Not only that, but with Portland losing tonight at home against Phoenix, the Rockets just took another big step toward securing home-court advantage in the first round. Next up: a Sunday evening home date with the Denver Nuggets.

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On Omer Asik's rebounding) “Huge, (he had) a big rebound. He got a big offensive rebound. He played well. He did a nice job. He came up and set good screens for the guys. He made a couple huge free throws, got some rebounds. We ended up doing okay for a while there. We had a hard time getting a rebound. We kind of got that under control somewhat, but they still ended up shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line, but we did too.

(On team defense) “It was pretty good. I thought there was a couple of times we made mistakes, but you're going to make mistakes. When you put two on one and load as much as we did, three have got to guard four. There is just going to be break downs, but I thought overall we did a good job of being active. I thought the team did a good job of fighting, event though it wasn't a perfect game. We only had eleven turnovers which for us is very good. We just kept battling. They made a run. They had a hell of a start in that third quarter and we were able to score enough points in that third quarter to keep within fighting distance. We got a lead and they battled back and we got a lead. The guys fought. A couple of times on the road we just didn't fight hard enough. Sometimes you just have to grind.”

(On closing out the third quarter) “That was really important. I said in a timeout with a minute and forty or fifty to go and I said, “Hey, we've got to get the next three hoops of this quarter. We've just got to get a stop.” We got some hoops, we got out. I thought we did some good stuff. The ball moved pretty well for the most part. It got sticky a little bit at times, but they have a lot of length around the rim. We shot thirty seven free throws and we got to the line quite a bit. We were around the basket a lot.”

(On playing through adversity) “There's all kinds of adversity in playoff games and playoff runs. As I said, everybody's ultimate goal is to win a championship. The toughest adversity to get over is to go out and play your butt off for forty eight minutes and lose a one point game and then got to gear it up two nights later and go out and play the same team again. You've got to be resilient and that's what I've been preaching with the guys and the coaching staff. You've just got to just stay in the fight and keep swinging. When we do that, we're okay. Like I said, I thought there were times we backed off a couple of times in road games and we can't do that.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On his strategy for defending Kevin Durant) “We were trying to be as physical as possible and making it as difficult as possible for him while being smart at the same time. We didn't want to get any cheap fouls. We didn't want to get him to the free throw line because he's pretty much automatic from the free throw line. Just wanted to be physical with him, make it tough, make him take long contested jump shots. We took turns on him. Francisco (Garcia) did a great job in the fourth quarter when I got my fourth foul. It was just team defense. We wanted to make those other guys beat us and we pretty much denied him (Kevin Durant) the ball and made those other guys make plays.”

(On the importance of having help guarding Kevin Durant) “Guarding him for the entire game is pretty much impossible, so I'm glad that Francisco (Garcia) was able to help me and our team did a great job too of covering our back. Every time he got a step on me, Omer (Asik) was loading. So, it was a team effort.”

FRANCISCO GARCIA

(On the importance of the win) “We had been struggling, especially to get a win, so we knew we had to go hard tonight, especially since we haven't beaten them the whole season. It was a good win for us. Down the stretch, a win is a win so we are getting ready for this playoff run.”

(On the team effort) “Everybody had to step up and be ready. It was a much needed win tonight because of the last three (losses). I think everybody has stepped up. Everybody did what they had to do and now we have to win one on Sunday so we've got to keep doing it.”

(On frustrating Kevin Durant defensively) “It's all good. It's competition. That's what it's all about...competing. He knows that I mean no harm. I know that we talked at halftime or whatever and he was cool, but when we were on the floor, it's whatever.”

JEREMY LIN

(On beating the Thunder for the first time this year) “It's big. I mean there are so many reasons why: we haven't beaten them this season; we were on a three game losing streak; we clinched the playoffs. There are so many different reasons. At the end of the day, it's just a good gutsy win.”

(On the Rockets making the plays to win in the fourth quarter) “I think there was a will to win tonight. I think you saw it from everybody out on the floor. We played so hard, Omer (Asik) getting lose balls and getting to the line and hitting shots. James (Harden) getting free throws and getting rebounds, Chandler (Parsons), Francisco (Garcia), that's the toughest thing to do what they did, chasing him (Kevin Durant) around, the league's leading scorer. There were a lot of contributions. Terrence Jones coming back healthy and not feeling sick.”

TERRENCE JONES

(On the importance of getting the win) “It was very important coming off a rough slump of three bad losses. We just wanted to go out there and make sure we took care of business.”

(On the ball movement, shorthanded) “It shows a lot of toughness and a lot of fight. I mean we had guys down and we still found a way win by playing with each other and moving the ball. And guys just doing all the little things for us to win.”

(On the play of Serge Ibaka) “It was great. He did what he needed to do, we did a lot of switches and he went to the boards on guards when we did that and got rebounds. He knocked down some threes, he did a lot of stuff that kept them in the game.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On the importance of the win) “It was a great win for us, especially since we wanted to get out of the three game losing skid we were on. Just to give ourselves confidence, especially going into the playoffs. We might see them. It was a big win for us, it shows the resilience that we have.”

(On getting the win with a few players out) “It was a great atmosphere, a great team, like you said, both teams have guys that are banged up. We figured a way to not stop and to continue to play, no matter what was going on through out the game and all four quarters.”

(On having Terrence Jones back) “It was a tremendous boost, he started and I have a high comfort level out there with him. I kind of know his spots and where he likes to ball. At the four, he’s so athletic; defensively he can switch and guard different players. It was great to have him back and that’s our lineup.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER COACH SCOTT BROOKS

(On the difference in the fourth quarter) “I liked our effort and energy coming back after a tough start. We didn’t do a good job throughout the night defending without fouling. They got thirty seven free throws. We fouled three shooters in the fourth quarter and that is not what we need to do. I liked our energy. I liked the commitment to coming back after last night. We came back with the mindset to win the game and t I thought our guys were good and we had some good performances but we just fouled too many times.”

(On Kevin Durant’s 40th game scoring 25 points) “I realize Kevin is an amazing player. I love him as a person, a phenomenal teammate and the best thing about him is he doesn’t care about the streak. He’s going to score a ton of points in the next 15 years in this league and he just cares about winning. The streak wasn’t on my mind and I don’t think it was on his mind. We just focus on playing good basketball.”

(On Serge Ibaka’s play) “Serge was good. Serge has really stepped up this year and had made some improvements, not only as a player, but his understanding of the game. Give him a lot of credit. He comes in and does the work everyday and I thought he really had an impactful turn on the game.”

KEVIN DURANT

(On the game) “We played as hard as we could, missed some shots and gave up a lot of free throws, but we still played hard until the end.”

(On Serge Ibaka’s play) “Serge has been playing real well. His energy gets everyone more engaged in the game. He did a great job for us.”

(On the streak) “We lost the game and that’s all I’m worried about. I don’t care, we lost.”

(On his recent shooting) “I’ve been missing and I would love to shoot sixty percent every game, but that’s not going to happen. I’m always going to stay aggressive and nothing is going to stop me from playing my game. I’ll go back to the drawing board and figure things out. It’s a matter of time before they start falling.”

(On the Rockets’ defense against him) “They wasn’t playing one on one, they were playing one on three. They were funneling me into two or three guys and before I get the ball, they had two guys on me. They know they can’t check me one on one. I’m not afraid to say that either and they know it. I was playing with double teams, triple teams, but I still have to find a way to do it. They were physical just like everybody else and I’ve been playing against physical players all my life and this was no different.”

CARON BUTLER

(On the game) “I thought we did a good job of just sustaining a couple of blows and runs they had. It was just too much at some point where we weren’t getting stops. You take that on the chin and on the end of a back to back and you learn from it and you get better.”

(On Serge Ibaka’s play) “He was giving us everything. He always plays with unbelievable spirit, pride out there and he brings it night in and night out on the defensive end and it transcend into the offensive end.”

NICK COLLISON

(On the team’s back to back games affecting fourth quarter play) “The NBA schedule is difficult but it’s difficult for all the teams. I think we’re going to point toward our mistakes that we made and execute some things late in the game. Of course we didn’t feel our best with our energy because of the game last night, but I don’t think that’s really an excuse. I think we’re going to see on the film that we weren’t able to do what we wanted to do late in the game.” 

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,407 tonight, which is the second-largest attendance of the season. The Rockets extended the new single-season record for Toyota Center to 35 sellouts on the season (prev. best: 28 sellouts in 2007-08).

The Rockets took a hard-fought 111-107 victory over the Thunder tonight. With the win, Houston captured its 28th all-time playoff berth.

Houston moved its overall record to 50-25 on the season. The Rockets marked their 10th 50-win season in team annals.

The Rockets are now 30-8 at home in 2013-14. Houston has its first 30-win season at home since finishing 33-8 in 2008-09 to set the best single-season win total at Toyota Center.

Houston and Oklahoma City each went 13-of-31 (.419) from beyond the arc tonight. The Rockets have now reached double-digits in 3-pointers made in each of their last four home games.

The Rockets finished the night 32-of-37 (.865) from the foul line. Houston is now 21-4 on the season when it attempts 35 or more free throws in a game.

The Thunder scored an opponent season-high 39 third-quarter points tonight, topping a 37-point third by the Suns at Phoenix (2/23/14). Oklahoma City used that surge to take an 84-82 lead into the fourth quarter. The Rockets have now won seven times this season when trailing after three quarters.

The two teams combined for 49 points off the break tonight (Rockets 27, Thunder, 22).

James Harden led all scorers with 39 points (9-22 FG, 4-8 3FG, 17-20 FT), adding nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals tonight. Harden, who now has eight straight 25-plus point outings (3/20/14-4/4/14), owns 30-plus points in 20 games on the season (Rockets record: 14-6).

Chandler Parsons, who recorded 20 points (8-16 FG) at Toronto (4/2/14), added another 23 points (5-17 FG, 3-9 3FG, 10-11 FT) tonight. Parsons, who had a career-best 22 20-point outings in 2012-13, has now reached 20-plus points on 20 occasions this season.

Terrence Jones posted 16 points (7-12 FG), 11 rebounds and two blocks tonight. Jones, who had just one double-double in his rookie campaign, now has 17 double-doubles in 2013-14.

Omer Asik had another 12 rebounds tonight. Asik has now collected 61 rebounds (15.3 rpg) over the last four games (3/29/14-4/4/14).

Kevin Durant finished with team highs of 28 points (7-19 FG, 11-12 FT) and 12 rebounds tonight. Durant also matched Michael Jordan’s career-long streak of scoring 25-plus points in 40 consecutive games. He last failed to score 25 or more points on vs. Boston (1/5/14).

Serge Ibaka tied his career high in scoring with 27 points (11-17 FG) to go along with nine rebounds and six blocked shots tonight. Ibaka now has four or more blocks in six of his last nine regular season games against the Rockets.