Bringing the Fight to Game 3
Date: August 22, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 5 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Series: 2-0 HOUSTON
The Thunder is down 0-2 in the series but can get back into it by continuing to dig in on defense. @NickGallo22's full report— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) August 21, 2020
In Game 2, the Thunder started out the game strong against Houston. The ball moved quickly, the free throw line was bountiful, and the Rockets’ sizzling 3-point offense was held at bay despite small bursts of offense. Going into the half, the Thunder led by six points and had cashed in 59 points in the first two quarters.
However, two massive runs by Houston in the third and fourth quarters not only eliminated the Thunder’s lead but put the squad in a deficit. The first run of 9-0 was manageable for OKC in the third quarter. A pair of 3-pointers by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and another one from Luguentz Dort helped to bring the game back to within one point and held the Rockets within arm’s reach. However, another timely outburst of 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter put Houston in commanding control of the game as the game clock dwindled in the final frame.
Gilgeous-Alexander led in scoring for both teams with a playoff career-high 31 points on 9-of-12 from the field and 10-11 from the free throw line. After being held to only nine points in Game 1, the second-year guard determined to be more assertive and aggressive in Game 2.
“He played a great game, it was great to see him aggressive,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan after the game on Thursday. “He was really getting in the lane and creating a lot of shots for himself and others.”
After getting into a 2-0 hole, the mood in the Thunder locker room is as competitive as ever. The same team who led the league in clutch scoring and who has come back to win three times when trailing by 15+ in the fourth quarter, is ready with its eyes set on the challenge at hand – Game 3.
“There's just a lot of positive energy going into Game 3 knowing that we need to do whatever it takes to win,” said Thunder rookie Darius Bazley. “That's pretty much it. We're going to you know Game 3 as if it was 0-0 and the series just started.”
“I feel very, very good about is the competitive makeup and spirit of this team,” said Coach Donovan. “I feel good about them coming back and competing (on Saturday). I feel good about that because of who they are as people and who they been this year as a team. I'm good with that, but we've also got to play well …we’ve got to do a lot of things well.”
Despite shooting a calm 33 percent from the 3-point line and only 21 points from James Harden, the Rockets’ strength came in the form of its balanced scoring. Seven Houston players finished in double figures with Danuel House Jr (19), Jeff Green (15), and Eric Gordon (15) leading the charge for Houston’s supporting cast.
In a night where the Rockets’ superstar in Harden struggled from the field, the reserves picked up the slack outscoring the Thunder’s second unit 32-20. For the majority of the Rockets’ fourth-quarter 17-0 run, Harden was resting on the sidelines. OKC was unable to capitalize on the offensive end as the scrappy Rockets’ defense held it scoreless for nearly five minutes, including five turnovers which resulted in open offensive looks on the other end of the floor for Houston.
“I think lot of times, your offense is your best defense,” said Coach Donovan. “With 10 turnovers in the second half and when you're missing shots, those two things are just fast breaks (for Houston) and one of the most difficult things to do for any team in to get back in transition and match up and trying to do that off of turnovers so we did do a lot of good things defensively, but I think in the second half, our defense was impacted by our offense.”
In his first ever playoff game, Thunder rookie Luguentz Dort matched up against the league’s scoring champion of three straight seasons in James Harden. Dort stood firm, the same way he did eight months ago on January 18 in his first ever start in the NBA – guarding Harden. Similar to that matchup on MLK Day, the Canadian guard helped hold Harden to a frustrating 2-of-12 performance from the 3-point line and a relatively quiet 21 points, which is 15 below his average.
“Lu brought it and he made it extremely difficult for Harden to get a rhythm going and to get comfortable doing what he usually does,” said fellow Thunder rookie Darius Bazley. “That was big for us for Lou to come in and get those stops and just play as hard as he did on both ends of the floor. It was really big.”
Stat to Watch
Bench Points.In Game 2, the Rockets reserves outscored OKC 32-20 and in Game 1, 42-27. Houston role players like Jeff Green have stepped into larger scoring roles in the absence of Russell Westbrook. Green alone is averaging 18.5 points (up from his 12.2 season average) on 46 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 60 percent from the field during the playoffs. Similarly, Houston starters P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. are both averaging four and six points respectively over their season averages in their first two playoff games this season.
In Game 3, keep an eye out for how the Thunder limits the offensive production from Houston’s supporting cast outside of James Harden.
A constant for the Thunder in the first two games has been its ability to win the free throw battle. In both Game 1 and 2, the Thunder attempted more free throws than Houston while also keeping the Rockets, who usually sit second in the league in both free throw attempts and makes, to an average of 18.5 attempts which is the lowest in the playoffs.
For the Thunder, winning the free throw battle will be one aspect of the equation going into Game 3. Taking care of the ball and finishing each defensive play with a rebound will be other key areas for Coach Donovan’s squad as Houston thrives in open floor situations and will look to take advantage of every second chance on offense.
“We have to do a lot of things very, very well in this matchup to put ourselves in position to win,” said Coach Donovan. “I think the free throw line, the rebounding and the turnovers for us are really, really critical because we know they're going to take a lot of threes, and we know that they're going to take as many as they can in transition and in their half court, and we’ve got to do a good job contesting… We have to offset certain things by the rebounding, the free throws and the turnovers.”