They laughed Mike D’Antoni out of the locker room.
Minutes after Houston took a 2-0 series lead over Oklahoma City in the Western Conference playoffs, the coach's attempt at funny fell flat.
“I just told the team all we did was defend homecourt,” D’Antoni said. “Now, we’ve got to go to Oklahoma City to play. They kind of laughed at me. I don’t get it.”
Bad jokes aside, what observers need to understand is this year’s Houston squad might just be the real deal. General Manager Daryl Morey and D’Antoni seem to have finally added the right ingredients to add pop to the Rockets superstar stew, which features James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who sat out of Thursday's 111-98 victory due to a quadriceps injury.
On an afternoon in which Houston launched an NBA playoff-record 56 shots from 3-point range -- missing 66.1% of them -- with Harden struggling offensively, the Rockets toppled the Thunder through suffocating defense and a magical fourth-quarter run, one engineered with the 2018 MVP cheering from the bench.
Harden had shot just 2-for-12 from the field in through the first three quarters and 1-for-9 from 3-point range, with eight assists. So, for a minute, you thought this cheering sequence might serve as Harden’s most significant contribution in this contest.
The run has Harden & Russ HYPED! pic.twitter.com/0qUPFrZMNu— NBA (@NBA) August 20, 2020
But please believe Harden had plenty of reasons for all the yelling and clapping.
With Harden on the bench and Houston trailing 78-77 to start the fourth quarter, the Rockets embarked on a game-changing frenzy that transformed the deficit into a 12-point lead by the time he checked back into the game.
“Unbelievable, man. That was the game right there,” said Harden, who scored a team-high 21 points. “The guys just took it upon themselves to guard, and we felt a sense that Oklahoma City was getting tired. We just kept pressing the gas on them. That was the game-changer right there for us. Huge shoutout to D-House [Danuel House Jr.], Jeff [Green], Tuck [P.J. Tucker], all the guys that were in in that fourth quarter. [Eric] Gordon made some big plays and then made some big shots.”
Just 12 seconds into the fourth quarter, Houston started off a 17-0 run that saw the Rockets comfortably ahead when Harden checked back in with 7:23 left to play. Houston’s defense sent Oklahoma City into a scoring drought that lasted 5 minutes and 14 seconds during that sequence.
Luguentz Dort finally ended it with a 26-footer off a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander assist to cut Houston’s lead to 11.
“Our defense has taken a couple of steps up,” D’Antoni said. “We knew that was going to be the key. The guys just bought in. They locked in. You’re going to have uneven nights offensively, but even with the uneven night offensively, we hung in there until we got the offense going. The second group that came in when James was resting did an unbelievably great job defensively. Then, they hit some shots with Danuel House, P.J., Eric and Jeff played a good game again.”
Houston’s backups, featuring three players in Green, Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers, outscored OKC’s quintet of reserves 32-20.
The Rockets also scored 13 points off Oklahoma City’s 14 turnovers, nabbing eight steals in addition to blocking three shots with a stingy, switching defense that helped them outscore the Thunder 58-40 in the second half.
Offensively, Houston dished 21 assists with seven turnovers for the game.
The Rockets also strung together a 16-2 run to start the third quarter, holding OKC scoreless for 7 minutes and 5 seconds.
During the game-changing sequence to start the fourth quarter, the Rockets feasted on a pair of 3-pointers from Green -- who scored all of his 15 points in the second half -- and a steal from Gordon that was converted into a 3-pointer, in addition to another long-range connection from House.
It’s just team energy. It’s great to have great leaders instilling confidence within me."
House, Green, Tucker and Gordon would combine for 23 points in the fourth quarter, with Harden putting the finishing touches on the win with 11 points on 3 of 4 from the floor and 1 of 2 from range.
Tucker finished the game perfect (4-for-4) from 3-point range, totaling 14 points.
“It’s not pride, it’s just team energy,” said House, who finished with 19 points. “It’s great to have great leaders such as Harden, Russ, E.G., all the older guys that are instilling confidence within me.”
The performance should also add a sense of conviction within the organization in the supporting cast’s ability to perform whenever Hardin struggles, and with Westbrook still out of action. It’s unknown when Westbrook will return to the lineup from his quadriceps injury, but Houston’s Game 2 performance gives it confidence it can take its time in putting him back on the floor.
“It starts on the defensive end, but we’ve got some really good offensive players out there without James,” D’Antoni said. “We’re going to be careful with Russ. He’s too valuable to just throw out there. We can’t wait to get him back. But this does help. It helps a lot of different areas.”
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