All night long, all season long and all career long, Houston Rockets guard James Harden has caught opponents getting loose with their hands, drawing fouls on jump shots by clipping out-stretched hands with his elbow.
Thunder guard Andre Roberson is a disciplined student. He pours over film and has a wealth of experience against Harden, and on a pivotal fourth quarter possession, Roberson got his hand in the right spot, at the right time.
Roberson backed up his block on a Harden three with a slick reverse layup after Russell Westbrook snared the loose airball, giving the Thunder a five-point cushion that felt like a mile of highway compared to the rest of this thrilling 112-107 Christmas Day victory for the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“James is a great player. I just tried to stay solid and not foul and just listen for my teammates calling out coverages,” Roberson described. “I kind of sat on it. He tried to go right. I shut it off and made a great play on the ball. I saw him rise, stayed down on the shot fake and got a tip on it.”
Even after dislocating a finger on his left hand in the first quarter of the game, Roberson and his energy made a mark on this game, so it was fitting that his defense and layup sealed the win. Despite how explosive Harden can be and how efficient he creates offense, the job Roberson did to shadow him for long stretches of this one definitely made the Houston guard’s job more challenging.
“Dre does all the little things. Stuff that don’t show up on the stat sheet, he does,” forward Paul George noted. “We recognize how huge and how big of a piece he is for this team.”
On one sequence, Roberson denied a pass to Harden on the wing, then tracked a backdoor cut to get a hand on a bounce pass. He then snatched up the ball and zipped it on a line into transition for a Westbrook layup.
“It’s just fundamentals to be honest,” Roberson explained. “I tried not to let him get it back, knowing he’s one of their go-to guys on the team to get everybody involved. I just tried to make it tough for him. The only way he could go was backdoor.”
“He lifts our team to another level when he’s playing like that defensively,” forward Carmelo Anthony reviewed. “It puts the onus on us. He challenges us when he’s doing what he’s doing on the defensive end to have his back, to be there for him, to step it up another notch.”
That play was part of a 9-0 Thunder run early in the third quarter, which backed up an 8-0 burst towards the end of the first half that helped Donovan’s group recover from an 8-point Houston advantage. All told, the stretch to span the end of the first and start of the second half was a 15-4 Thunder run.
The defense ratcheted up to another level during that portion of the game, as the Thunder made 3 steals and a block, generated 5 turnovers and forced 6 missed shots on 7 attempts during the 5-and-a-half-minute period.
As expected heading into the game, the free throw line was a major factor all night long, as the Thunder did still foul three-point shooters and get put into binds on drives into the paint. Houston is notorious for their ability to bait opponents into fouls, and the Thunder knows it needs to be more disciplined and aware moving forward. The result of putting their hands in the cookie jar was 31 free throw attempts for Houston, and a plus-7 advantage for the Rockets in makes.
Despite that, the Thunder’s defense was still sensational, as it has been all season long. Against Houston’s high-powered offense, Oklahoma City held Houston to just 43.2 percent shooting, including a pedestrian 12-for-37 (32.4 percent) mark from the three-point line and just 44 points on 22-for-40 shooting in the paint to go with 14 turnovers.
“We took on the challenge,” George said. “We knew it was going to be tough. We were going to be tested with their ability to spread the floor and shoot.”
“Tonight we made multiple efforts on the defensive end, which we knew we were going to have to do against a fast-paced team like that,” Anthony added. “We knew were going to have to scramble tonight. We did a great job of not getting frustrated when they made tough shots.”
Continually getting stops allowed the Thunder to explode out to 20 fast break points, many of which came courtesy of Russell Westbrook, who shoot off an 0-for-6 start from the field and ended up with a game-high 31 points on 12-for-24 shooting to go with 11 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals.
“You keep playing,” Westbrook said. “One thing about me is I impact the game in different ways. Shooting is not the only way, scoring is not the only way to impact the game. Defend, rebound, make plays for my teammates, leadership, all aspects. I feel like I’m a guy who does everything on the floor at all times, and that’s what I lean on.”
When he checked back into the game with 8:53 remaining in the fourth quarter, Westbrook immediately changed the pace. As if the opposition simply wasn’t ready for his speed, the reigning MVP made it a point to burst up the floor, and ignited a quick 5-0 burst to tie the game back up at 93.
“I’m coming, you know?” Westbrook shrugged. “That’s what I bring to the table. Once I hit the floor, it’s non-stop.”
A minute later, the Thunder put together a nice little 7-2 spurt behind jumpers by Anthony and George, and a driving layup from Westbrook. That gave the Thunder a 102-98 cushion with 5:25 remaining. It’s clear now, during this stretch of five-straight Thunder wins and victories in 11 of the team’s last 14 games, the Thunder’s shot-making has finally come around.
A minute and change later, Houston intentionally fouled Roberson twice, and the Thunder guard split four free throws before Donovan subbed him out for Jerami Grant. The Thunder held down the fort until Roberson got back, keeping the scoreboard moving along with the Rockets behind four George points and a tough Westbrook jumper.
“There’s no confusion. We’re just playing,” George said of crunch time. “We trust one another. We’re on the same page with one another. We just figure it out, how to close, how to play well, how to tighten up. We’re just comfortable, I think. That’s what took a little time.”
Harden responded with a driving layup through traffic, but then all was quiet one the scoreboard for 80 seconds, until Roberson’s fast break layup. Up 5 with 21 seconds to go, the Thunder needed one last stand to secure the win. Roberson came through once again, poking the ball away from Eric Gordon, and give the Thunder faithful a merry, merry Christmas.
Highlights: Thunder vs. Rockets - Christmas Day
By the Numbers
8-for-12 – Shooting numbers for Carmelo Anthony on the night, on his way to 20 points
10 – Blocked shots for the Thunder on the night, in addition to its nine steals
54.4 – Shooting percentage for the Thunder on the night, including 38-for-64 (59.4 percent) by the starters
The Last Word
“It was just special to play on Christmas. In my household we grew up opening gifts and watching NBA games. It was just great to be a part of that. The whole day, I was just really excited, just to be here, to be in this situation and really blessed.” – forward Paul George, who delivered an pregame address to the crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena, on his first Christmas Day game