Thunder Withstands Barrage, Maintains Composure for Huge Game 4 Win
The temptation must have been massive to try to just go shot for shot. In the math problem that the Houston Rockets try to create, the Thunder’s opponent aims to demoralize teams by drilling 3-pointers and only allowing 2-pointers on the other end.
To start the third quarter on Monday afternoon, Houston rained in triples to dizzying effect, yet the Thunder didn’t get a standing eight count. Instead, OKC remained composed, played its game and hung in there until the Rockets cooled off. The result was a remarkable comeback, a rally from 15 points down midway through the third quarter for a dramatic 117-114 victory in Game 4 to even this Western Conference playoff series 2-2.
Coming out of the halftime locker room, the Rockets were ablaze, knocking down its first eight 3-point attempts, capped by Danuel House’s 3 with 6:17 to go in the period. During that stretch, everything the Rockets touched turned into singed netting. Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, James Harden, PJ Tucker and House all hit at least one 3 in the first six minutes of the period.
“They kind of got a flurry there to start that third quarter where it seemed like everything they threw up was going in,” said Donovan. “Our guys’ effort and energy to contest and get out there was great. We're going to need to do that just to try to disrupt the shooters without fouling them. Our effort in our energy to scramble and rotate and then rebound really helped us get back in the game.”
Most teams would have been stunned into submission. What had been a tie game at 60 points apiece after 24 minutes was suddenly an 86-71 ballgame after only 360 seconds. All the while though, the Thunder was deliberate in its offense, attacking the middle of the floor for layups and midrange jumpers instead of trying to match Houston’s hoists from deep.
Chris Paul, the Thunder’s leader off the floor with his status as the NBPA President and public comments about civil rights after the game and on the floor with his play, was in the middle of it all. The veteran point guard made three consecutive jump shots between 17 and 20 feet during the height of Houston’s flurry, helping the Thunder keep the scoreboard moving long enough for that sizzling shooting from Houston to wear off and for a few of the Thunder’s deep buckets to go down. Paul scored 14 of his 26 total points in the third to steady the Thunder’s ship.
“(Paul) was great. With the way they're playing defense and the way we're trying to space the floor he’s got a really good comfort level of where his spots are going to be. He has a way of stopping runs and finding ways to generate good shots,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan.
“Our team all season has dealt with adversity really, really good. We just tried to keep playing keep fighting and stay in the game,” said Paul.
After those eight-straight makes for Houston, the Rockets died by the 3, going just 5-of-26 from behind the arc the rest of the game, which included a make on a meaningless heave from House at the final buzzer. As the Rockets’ jumpers fell flat, the Thunder just kept chipping away, getting a pair of 3-pointers from Dennis Schröder and Darius Bazley, then a 3-point play from Paul to make it 93-87 Houston with 1:32 to go in the third quarter.
Houston missed six-straight shots and turned the ball over once during the final 2:54 of the period. That was just the opening the Thunder needed for a crucial 12-0 run to close out the quarter, which was capped by a Nerlens Noel two-for-one layup off a Schröder assist. Then Paul pushed the ball up the floor off a rebound with just five seconds remaining and found Schröder on the right wing. The German guard, with a gold lightning bolt shaved into his hair, drilled a 31-footer right at the buzzer to make it a one-point game heading into the final frame.
“I always believe that we can turn it around,” said Schröder. “A little bit of energy, get stops as a team, take the good shots and we’ll be in good shape.”
In addition to four crucial threes, Schröder was a menace attacking the basket, blowing by slower defenders for tricky layups around the bucket. That included a sensational one that utilized a final burst of Schröder’s energy, putting the game away with 35.9 seconds remaining to give the Thunder a 111-108 lead to take charge following a stretch of seven-straight lead changes. He also was a vital voice of reason for Paul and his other Thunder teammates during some of the more challenging moments of the game that put OKC’s back up against the wall.
“I want everybody to keep each other accountable,” said Schröder. “Sometimes when I see something I tell him and he always listens you know so every time when he tells me something, or I tell Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) something, we just try to keep the energy up and try to get on the same page.”
The other piece of adversity the Thunder had to navigate on Monday night was foul trouble, and from the player that OKC most needs to stay out of it. Lu Dort picked up his third foul with 5:24 remaining in the second quarter, so the man charged with dealing with James Harden all game had to sit for a crucial stretch to end the half.
Donovan turned to third-year guard Terrance Ferguson, who has started more than half of his career games. Without hesitation, Ferguson jumped in for a pivotal 3:17 of defense, including a forced turnover on Harden. It was a great sign of the Thunder’s culture of being constantly vigilant.
“I was really proud of Terrance,” said Donovan. “He was out of the rotation. We get in a little bit of foul trouble, we throw him in to close the half out and he did a really good job on both ends of the floor. I really admire him keeping himself ready to play.”
Dort went back into the game for most of the third quarter but drew his fifth foul with 11:37 to go in the final frame. The rookie checked out for a couple minutes but came back with 9:46 remaining in the fourth quarter and managed to compete the rest of regulation without fouling out. He kept his feet moving, maintained proper position, ensured his hands didn’t get caught reaching and even managed to draw a massive offensive foul on Houston’s PJ Tucker with 3:07 to go.
“Lu is unbelievable how he accepts the challenge,” said Paul. “He stayed out there. A lot of times that guys have five fouls they get tentative. They start pulling their hands back. He’s just one of those guys that deserves to be here.”
“We're gonna try to show our hands as much as possible. We're trying to keep the bodies in front,” said Donovan. “It’s certainly a point of emphasis for us and we're trying to do the best job we can to continue to do that.”
With Dort standing firm on defense and the Thunder going to a smaller lineup with Danilo Gallinari at center, OKC rode the momentum from its 12-0 third quarter-closing rally. The Thunder didn’t let that hailstorm of threes break it and made enough plays in the fourth to come through for a huge Game 4 win.
Monday actually constituted the Thunder’s second comeback from 15 points down in the second half against the Rockets this calendar year, with the first coming on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when OKC trailed 100-85 with 7:18 left in regulation. As it had all season long when it put together the best clutch-time net rating in the league, the Thunder rallied back for a huge road win.
“There's so many possessions in an NBA game, and there's so much time, and people are playing so much faster,” said Donovan. “Leads that years ago seemed like a really difficult hill to climb are attainable.”
It’s a good lesson for the Thunder for the remainder of this series, as its fans around the world will get treated to at least Games 5 and 6 between these Western Conference foes. If they’re anything like the last two, NBA watchers will need to monitor their heart rate. Thunder-Rockets is shaping up to require plenty of calm to traverse stormy playoff seas.