Masked up with both arms crossed, Mike D’Antoni choked back any giddiness creeping into his gut about Houston pushing Oklahoma City to the brink of elimination.
Game 6: Rockets vs. Thunder (9 ET, TNT)
But if you remember back to when Houston shot ahead 2-0 in this series, D’Antoni crossed his arms and said it “didn’t mean anything.”
So, it’s no surprise his demeanor hadn’t changed after this one. (We won’t tell him, but when a playoff series is tied 2-2, the Game 5 winner owns a record of 171-37 in series play.)
“They’re not going anywhere,” D’Antoni said. “It’s going to be a dog fight the next game, and then we’ll see what happens. To close people out is one of the hardest things to do. We’ve got to win the next game, and they’ve got to win the next game. So, there will be no letting down, hopefully, on our side. There better not be. It doesn’t matter. We just throw the records out. We’re going to play one game Monday and try to win it.”
Here are four takeaways from the game:
1. Game-changing play
Based on the final score, it’s tough to believe this was a three-point game at halftime.
Houston led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but OKC scored 11 straight points in the second half of the second quarter and trailed at intermission just 48-45, despite its starters combining for just 21 points, thanks to the exploits of super sub Dennis Schroder (19 points on 6-of-12 shooting in the first half). But the Rockets would start out the second half on a 19-2 run to go up by 20 with 7:43 remaining in the third quarter.
That wasn’t even the killer.
Fifty-two seconds later, P.J. Tucker set a screen with Schroder working to fight over the top of it. As Schroder collided with Tucker, the Thunder guard appeared to hit the Rockets wing in the groin with his right hand. Schroder then turned to speak with an official. Tucker walked up from behind and head-butted Schroder.
Officials ejected both players, charging Schroder with a Flagrant 2 and Tucker with a technical.
“I didn’t see a lot of different angles,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “First thing was it was obviously an illegal screen, and it was kind of a bang-bang play. P.J., obviously, after the play was over kind of head-butted Dennis. I’m not even gonna speculate or even [try] to read Dennis’ mind. I think it was a bang-bang play. Dennis was trying to find a way to get around the screen, and he got hung up.”
Clearly, Oklahoma City suffered more than Houston from the double ejection, as Schroder finished as the Thunder’s leading scorer, despite missing the rest of the third quarter and the entire fourth.
“I didn’t see it,” said James Harden, who scored a game-high 31 points on 8 of 14 from the floor and 6 of 11 from deep. “But P.J. wouldn’t have reacted that way if it was nothing. That just gave us that extra boost to kind of play the right way and do what we were doing from the beginning of the game.”
OKC had overcome second half double-digit deficits to win Games 3 and 4, but after Schroder’s ejection, it became clear the Thunder wouldn’t have the firepower this time to mount a comeback. OKC’s 80 points were its fewest in the bubble, not to mention the club’s lowest-scoring postseason game since May 2014.
Without Schroder’s slashing ability and 3-point shooting to help for the majority of the second half, the Thunder set a franchise low for field goal percentage (31.5) for the game, and finished 7 of 46 from 3-point range.
2. Russell Westbrook’s return
Returning from a strained right quadriceps, Westbrook played in his first game since Aug. 11, and as expected, the point guard appeared to be rusty.
Westbrook shot just 3-of-13 from the field, but he dished seven assists in a little more than 23 minutes on the floor.
The team entered the game planning to restrict Westbrook to between 20 and 25 minutes. So, Houston’s huge second-half lead helped the team to accomplish that goal.
D’Antoni said he was pleased with “the rhythm he gives us, the speed. Then, James doesn’t have to make every play. Russell was hitting guys early, getting good shots. We didn’t make a lot of them. But we were getting good shots. He was creating really well. A guy of that stature, he’s going to be important. So, we’ve missed him.”
Most importantly, Westbrook came out of the game healthy, which could lead to an increase in minutes for Game 6.
“We know what he brings to the table. He brought that energy,” Harden said. “He brought that excitement that we were missing. We just need him. He’s our leader, and we all know what he does for the game of basketball and our team. It was exciting to have him out there.”
3. Did Houston crack the OKC code?
It’s worth pondering as Houston appeared to uncover a couple of glaring Oklahoma City vulnerabilities in Luguentz Dort on the offensive end of the floor and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on defense.
At this point, Dort appears to be the Thunder’s most pressing concern.
For the most part, Dort has provided solid defense throughout this series on Harden. But offensively, Dort’s ineffectiveness in this outing left OKC playing basically with four against five on offense. Throughout the game, Houston’s defenders often left Dort open on the perimeter for wide-open shots. He couldn't take advantage, shooting 3 of 16 from the floor and missing all nine of his attempts from 3-point range.
To his credit, Dort never showed any reluctance to shoot the ball despite those struggles.
“It was great to see the guys supporting Lu in terms of encouraging him to shoot when he was open,” Donovan said. “I think there were some that he hesitated on. I think part of his growth is understanding when to shoot some, when to drive, and when to pass some.
"He just didn’t have a very good offensive night. Those same shots were there in Game 4. He made a couple of them. He also made some big plays. None of us are perfect, but you’re gonna get great effort from Lu. He just didn’t shoot the ball well. Our whole team didn’t shoot the ball well.”
It was definitely a rough night for OKC’s vaunted three-guard lineup as Chris Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander finished minus-28 and minus-27, respectively, while Schroder was minus-1.
“Luckily, we talked about all this stuff before we got here. So, that’s that,” Paul said. “We’ll go back to drawing board, see what we did well, see what we didn’t do well. Just about every game, the first play of the third quarter, they started off with a 3. So, we’ve got to let our defense create our offense, and I think we’ll be O.K.”
4. Reflections from the NBA’s hiatus
Donovan expressed concerns before the game about his team’s rhythm after the league took a three-day break once the players staged a walkout in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting.
But for the most part, the league’s latest hiatus provided a needed break emotionally, especially with the deaths of actor Chadwick Boseman, who starred in Black Panther, and former NBA standout Cliff Robinson.
“It’s a lot to unpack,” Paul said. “Chadwick was a special guy. I think everyone took it hard, especially in the black community. That was one of our Black superheroes.
"That on top of everything, one of our brothers, at such a young age, at 53 years old. I remember being a kid watching Cliff Robinson, growing up and watching him play against Michael Jordan. All of this stuff happening. Jacob Blake is still on our mind day in and day out.
"To be honest with you, it was nice to get out and play some. That’s somewhat of our way to decompress and our outlet. All of the guys in our league, all of the players, we just want accountability. If we can get accountability for police officers just like ourselves, then I think that’s a start.”
Harden thought the hiatus was important because “the world needed to know that we’re involved with them. I think we needed a couple of days to sit back and reflect on what’s going on in the world. We understand what’s going on. Obviously, it’s bigger than basketball.”
Added Westbrook: “I think during times like this, sports [are] something that everybody at home right now, that’s kind of all we have right now that’s a positive and inspiring.
"But at the same time, it’s nothing wrong with taking a pause and a break to be able to reset and actually take time to be able to make sure that our voices are heard as athletes; especially us African-American athletes. It’s something that’s very important, not just something that we can just have a conversation and move on.”
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