Russell Westbrook cheered from the bench rocking a black bandana and a ripped up grey t-shirt emblazoned on the front with “Fight Racism.”
Turns out the Houston Rockets didn’t really need him Tuesday to wallop the Oklahoma City Thunder 123-108 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
Sidelined with a strained right quadriceps muscle, Westbrook underwent an MRI before the team’s win over Oklahoma City. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni declined to place a definitive timeline on the nine-time All-Star’s potential return to the lineup.
D’Antoni said that although Westbrook’s injury “is healing” the team “can’t rule anything out, but don’t rule anything in” regarding his status.
Based on Houston’s sharp performance in a game more lopsided than the final score seemed to indicate, perhaps the Rockets can afford to take their time with bringing back Westbrook.
These teams faced one another Tuesday for the first-time since Houston committed to its current small-ball style of play, and it became apparent from the outset that Oklahoma City wasn’t ready. James Harden posted his 20th career playoff game with 35 points or more (37), and the Rockets cruised on the strength of contributions from less-heralded players such as Jeff Green (22 points) and Eric Gordon (21 points).
“It’s a different team,” Thunder point guard Chris Paul said. “You play a certain way the whole season, and then you’ve got a team that switches everything. It’s Game 1. We’ve got to figure it out. That’s why they are who they are. They play totally different than any other team in the league.”
Here are five observations from Game 1:
Westrbrook’s replacement comes up big
Gordon joined Houston’s starting lineup for Game 1 and provided most of the same elements the Rockets have come to expect from Westbrook, except with a more consistent jump shot, in leading a first-half onslaught.
“Eric Gordon is like a wildcard for them because Gordy is so tough [with] his ability to shoot deep, his ability to drive,” Paul said.
Gordon racked up 14 of his 21 points in the second quarter alone, hitting his only 3-point attempt of the quarter, while wreaking havoc with drives to the basket off the dribble in helping Houston build a 21-point lead. Gordon led the Rockets in scoring (16 points) at halftime.
“Eric is more than capable,” Harden said. “He’s one of the most skilled guys that we have in this league. He’s able to beat his guy off the bounce, create opportunities for his teammates and shoot the 3 at a high level.”
Gordon’s Game 1 performance marked the first time since the beginning of the season that he’s appeared to be fully healthy. Gordon fought through a knee injury that required surgery in November, before suffering a sprained left ankle during a restart scrimmage in the NBA bubble, just days before Houston played its first seeding game.
He’s “finally getting his swag and his rhythm back,” according to Harden.
“It’s all about playmaking,” Gordon said. “I’m going to continue to attack the rim or even knock down shots. That’s the great thing about my game: I can always attack the rim, I can always get off the 3, and I can always penetrate and kick to someone else.”
Houston’s defense frustrates Thunder
It definitely gave Oklahoma City plenty of problems, especially in the first half as the Thunder shot 40.5% with playmakers Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder combining to connect on just 5 of 19 from the field.
Houston’s half-court defense switched on everything with crisp rotations that consistently prevented Paul and the other scorers from getting to their spots on the floor, which forced Oklahoma City’s offense to become stagnate most of the game.
“I thought they did a really good job of keeping [Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder] out of the lane,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think you started to see Chris [Paul] do it a little bit later in the game. There are times the ball is coming to those guys, and they’ve got to shoot the ball. There are times where they’re off of those guys, and those guys are gonna have to rise up and shoot. They’re good shooters. If they’re open, they need to take those shots. They were trying to get downhill as much as they could. Listen, the faster we play, the more it helps those guys. The slower we get, the more it’s a little bit of a challenge for us. They’re a physical, strong team. When you get caught up in the half court, those guys getting in there against that contact, it’s tough to finish. But if you can get the ball ahead of their defense, and those guys can get their speed and quickness involved, they’ll be better off if we can play faster. That’s gonna be a key for us is can we play faster?”
Oklahoma City committed 13 turnovers for 19 Houston points, and the Rockets outscored the Thunder 13-2 on the break.
“Since we’re undersized, we have to be flying around,” D’Antoni said. “Once we play with that intensity, the speed that we were playing with makes it tough on teams. If they catch you on the ropes, they’re gonna pound you. It was great defense.”
OKC’s closing lineup impressive
Donovan might need to find more minutes for his closing lineup of Paul, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, which finished the regular season with a net rating of 29.9, good for tops in the league for any five-man lineup playing together at least 100 minutes.
Donovan utilized the group when Oklahoma City fell behind 21 points in the second quarter, and it helped the Thunder trim the deficit to just 11 points in a span of 2:36.
Rockets bench dominates
OKC’s bench entered the playoffs having outscored or tied opponents’ reserves in 49 of the team’s 72 games during the regular season, helping the Thunder to a record of 33-16 under those circumstances.
In fact, the Thunder bench limited opposing reserves during the regular season to the lowest scoring average (34.6) in the NBA while tying for first in blocks (181).
Houston busted up all those stats with a dominating performance in Game 1. The Rockets reserves, led by Green (handling the ball in a point forward role) and Ben McClemore (14 points on 4 of 7 from deep), outscored Oklahoma City’s bench 42-27. What’s scarier is that Gordon could move to the bench this series if Westbrook is deemed healthy enough at some point to play.
“When Russell gets back, we’ll have an even deeper bench,” D’Antoni said. “Ben’s been playing well only since the first of the year. He’s played well all year. Then, you’ve got Jeff [Green] and Austin [Rivers]. So, if you add somebody back to the bench … our bench is good. It’s just trying to get everybody healthy and everybody playing at the same time.”
Adjustments ahead for the Thunder
NBA.com colleague John Schuhmann pointed out coming into this series that no Western Conference team had limited Houston to fewer points per 100 possessions in the regular season than the Thunder (102.9). The Rockets shot worse than 30% from 3-point range in the three regular-season meetings, losing twice.
But that was before Houston’s all-in commitment to small ball, which D’Antoni quickly noted.
“You know we have a different team, right? That’s the biggest thing,” D’Antoni said. “We just are a completely different team, and it’s the first time they’ve seen us. So, they’ll make their adjustments. I don’t expect it to be easy by any means.”
Luguentz Dort played a role in guarding Harden in the third regular season meeting between the teams, but he sat out Tuesday due to a sprained right knee. Donovan experimented some in the first half of Game 1 by playing defensive stopper Andre Roberson against Harden, due to the former’s extensive experience against the 2018 MVP.
Once considered an elite defender, Roberson is still getting acclimated after missing 2 ½ years of basketball due to a devastating left knee injury. He played nearly 3 ½ minutes in Game 1.
“I wanted to take a look at Andre to see what it would be like guarding James Harden because he certainly has a history of playing him and knows him very well,” Donovan said. “I think it was important sooner than later to find out what that would look like.”
Paul admitted that Game 1 served as somewhat of a feeling-out process for Oklahoma City.
“We didn’t necessarily probably play fast enough, downhill,” Paul said. “It’s Game 1. We’ve got to feel it out. [It’s] the first team all season we’ve played like that. So, we knew it was sort of a feel-out game. Stay with it, one game at a time. Each game, we’re gonna learn something about them. They’re gonna learn something about us.”
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