Double-digit defeats over the first two games wouldn’t deter Oklahoma City.
Powered by its three-guard lineup featuring Dennis Schroder (29 points), Chris Paul (26) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23), Oklahoma City bested Houston in overtime, 119-107, on Saturday for its first victory of the Western Conference playoffs.
Throw in Danilo Gallinari’s 20-point contribution, and Oklahoma City featured four players scoring 20 points or more for the first time since 1976 (as the Supersonics). The Thunder now trail Houston in the series, 2-1.
“We made quick decisions,” said Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan. “I really felt like the first half of Game 2 we did that, and then I thought in the second half of Game 2 we got slowed down, we were holding it. We’ve got advery, very cerebral, smart team. A lot of times, they really with their mind can try to manipulate the game.
“But when you’ve got a team [like Houston] that’s switching everything you’re doing, sometimes, what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to be in good spacing and attacking, and just really trying to play a little bit faster and make quicker decisions. We’ve got to play that way.”
The Thunder did it masterfully Saturday when the stakes were highest.
“I think we’re starting to figure out how to play against their defense,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They’re the only team in the NBA that really plays like that. It’s something that we have to get used to. But I think we’ve figured it out and we’re excited about going forward.”
Here are three takeaways:
1. OKC continues to shine in clutch situations
Entering the postseason, we mentioned Oklahoma City’s propensity to perform in clutch situations, as Schroder, Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari came into the playoffs ranked among the top of the league in regular-season games played during clutch time -- any game separated by five points or fewer in the last five minutes.
The Thunder finished the regular season with a league-best record of 30-14 in clutch time, and that muscle memory definitely came in handy against the Rockets, helping OKC to capture a Game 3 win for the sixth consecutive instance after trailing 0-2 in a playoff series.
With 59.7 seconds left to play, OKC trailed by 5 points after P.J. Tucker’s 23-footer made the score 102-97. But 45.4 ticks later, after layups from Paul and Steven Adams, the veteran point guard then launched a nifty pass to a wide-open Gilgeous-Alexander, who nailed a 3-pointer to put the Thunder up 104-103.
“We talked about it in the huddle,” Paul said. “We wanted to try to go at a matchup. So, once I got that matchup, I knew that help was going to have to come over from somewhere. The pass was easy. Shai had the hard part of knocking down the shot. That was a big shot for us.”
From there, James Harden, who scored a game-high 38 points, picked up his sixth foul 53 seconds into the OT period, as Oklahoma City shot off to a 12-0 run. Houston’s first basket of OT didn't come until 56.1 seconds remained.
“We know that if we play the right way, play to our identity, anything is possible,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’ve proven so, so many times this year that that’s just our mentality now, and it’s part of our nature.”
Paul knocked down two 3-pointers in OT, as the Thunder connected on 4-of-9 field goals in the extra frame.
Houston shot 1-for-9 from the floor in OT and hit just 15-of-50 from deep for the game.
“We definitely let one get away,” Harden said. “I think throughout the course of the game, we just made too many mental mistakes and gave them opportunities to score. It’s that simple.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni chalked up Paul’s late-game heroics as “what he’s been doing for the last probably 15 years. He just is a great clutch player, and really thinks the game. But having said that, we had the game [with] 24 seconds [left] and a one-point lead. They executed, we didn’t. Some things just messed up a little bit. I just told them you don’t get too high, you don’t get too low. It’s one game. We played a lot of minutes, but they played a lot of minutes also. So, it’s gonna be just whoever has the will to come out the next game and get a win.”
2. Luguentz Dort is a problem
Harden and the Rockets are quickly discovering as much. Sure, Harden produced his 21st career playoff game with 35-plus points. But they didn’t come easy with Dort defending him.
Dort sat out of Game 1 due to a right knee sprain, but in 25 minutes of defending Harden in Game 2, he limited the 2018 MVP and three-time scoring champion to 21 points on 5-of-16 shooting.
By the time Dort blocked Harden’s driving layup to start overtime, he had already held the Rockets guard to 3-of-14 shooting in Game 3.
“Lu is trying to guard arguably one of the best offensive players to ever play the game,” Paul said. “James is that tough to defend with the stepbacks, the drives, the ability to get to the free-throw line. So, what we’re trying to do, too, is trying to make him defend. The way that they play is they seek out matchups, and they try to go at you. So, we want to try to make sure that we keep him working on the other end, too.”
That tactic certainly worked, and ironically, Harden committed his sixth foul trying to defend Dort. It marked the first time Harden fouled out of a postseason game since May 2017.
“I thought Lu’s effort on James, on Eric Gordon, was really, really great,” Donovan said. “He put it all into it.”
3. Timetable for Russell Westbrook remains uncertain
Although Houston seemed to breeze through the first two games of this series without Westbrook in the lineup, it’s clear the Rockets could have used his athleticism on both ends of the floor in this one.
Donovan and Paul said that OKC has been able to counteract Houston’s ability to switch everything on defense by playing downhill and making quick decisions. That task becomes more difficult for OKC with Westbrook on the floor.
Westbrook has missed five consecutive games since the NBA restart due to a strained right quadriceps muscle.
D’Antoni was asked after the game whether Westbrook might be ready to return on Monday for Game 4.
“I don’t know yet. I’m sure he’s going to test it,” D’Antoni said. “He’s working every day, getting a little bit better. So, we’ll see. Today, I have no clue. His status didn’t change from the start of the game, where he didn’t play, to the end of the game. So, we’ll see in a day or two.”
D’Antoni said before the game that Westbrook had participated in some limited work with the team.
The Rockets finished the regular season with a record of 10-8 without Westbrook in the lineup.
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