A high-scoring, back-and-forth game required an immense amount of poise and discipline by the Thunder to stay in the game. An electric 30-point performance by Dennis Schröder and composure to withstand Houston’s scoring runs gave the Thunder the edge it needed to win in the clutch.
There were 72 total points on the board after the first frame of basketball. Both the Thunder and the Rockets were red-hot shooting the basketball and put up 35 and 37 points respectively in the opening 12 minutes. OKC, who started the game 3-of-3 from the 3-point line, shot an impressive 6-of-10 at the end of the first frame to match a cool 60 percent from the field as well. Houston, who was down eight points in the first three minutes after the Thunder’s hot start, finished the quarter 8-of-15 from the 3-point line and 12-22 from the field. James Harden handled the bulk of the scoring for the Rockets who put up an early 15 points on a perfect 3-3 from behind the arc and 5-6 from the field.
The looming question: which team would cool off first and how would they respond? At the half, the score was tied up 60-60 and there was a subtle indication that Houston’s hot shooting might slow down with only two of their 3-pointers falling in the second frame. However, coming out of the locker room, the Rockets’ offense went in the complete opposite direction.
Houston went 8-for-8 from the 3-point line to start the third quarter. Eric Gordon, responsible for three of those looks from downtown, opened up the third with an 11-point performance to propel the Rockets to an advantage as large as 15 points with less than four minutes remaining in the quarter. Chris Paul did his best to keep his team afloat with nine points of his own by answering nearly all of the Rockets’ downtown bombs with a patented midrange jumper of his own, mitigating the potential for Houston to get completely out of reach.
“He was great,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan about his veteran point guard in Paul. “He has a way of kind of stopping runs and finding ways to generate good shots and…he really changed (the momentum).”
Dennis Schröder piled on to the change in momentum brought about by Paul in the third quarter. His undeniable energy boost was highlighted with a game-altering, buzzer-beating three at the end of the quarter to cap off a resilient 12-0 run bringing the game back to within one point going into the fourth quarter. The Thunder, who were down by 15 points only minutes prior, now had a shot to take the lead in the final frame thanks to the resilience and poise shown by its players in the midst of Houston’s outrageous scoring run.
“That’s where you have to have (emotional toughness),” Donovan said. “They knocked down some shots and they built a lead but we’ve just got to stay the course and play to our identity.”
Houston’s remarkable 3-point shooting to start the third quarter was merely a flash in the frying pan. After the initial spurt of firepower, the Rockets fizzled. In the fourth quarter, Houston sank only four 3-pointers on 16 attempts. Eric Gordon, who scored 11 points in the third, remained scoreless in the following quarter and James Harden missed three deep 3-pointers on nearly back-to-back possessions in an attempt to take the lead. The Thunder’s defense stayed disciplined to force Hardens’ looks to come from as far as 35-feet from the basket.
Even still, the game remained neck and neck. From the moment Schröder, the Rockets and the Thunder traded baskets for nearly 12 minutes straight. The speed and tempo that both teams had in the first quarter was still on full display as each member attempted to answer the other with a quick bucket on the other end. With 1:52 left on the game clock, Chris Paul drove in for a layup to put the Thunder ahead 107-106, 10 seconds later, Jeff Green sank a hook shot in the middle of the paint. Before 30 seconds could pass following his previous shot, the league’s leader in clutch points was already on the other end knocking down another 19-foot jumper to take back a lead.
This trend of back-and-forth basketball continued until the final seconds of the game when the composure of the Thunder shined through in key, game-altering plays.
All game long, Thunder Sixth Man of the Year contender, Dennis Schröder proved why he is in the running for such an award. In his very first possession after checking into the game, he knocked down a 3-pointer and then followed that possession with 13 points in his first 14 minutes of play. Just like in Game 3, he brought his energy with him onto the court by knifing through the Rocket’s defense and using his speed to his advantage to rack up 21 of his 30 points through the first three quarters – including the monster dagger to end the third and bring the game to within one point.
The fourth quarter began and ended with layups from Schröder. The German lightning bolt used his quick first step to zoom past his defender to give his team the lead and extend a 14-0 run to begin the frame. After his squad battled blow-for-blow in the waning minutes of the final frame, it was the same quick-first-step layup that extended the Thunder’s lead to three points. Houston attempted an answer with a 3-pointer from P.J. Tucker but to no avail. The Rockets had to result to fouling in order to stop the clock, and the Thunder (Paul and Schröder) sank all six of its remaining free throws.
“Dennis is one of my favorite teammates ever,” Paul said. “We got a lot in common, we’re both emotional players. I always know he’s gonna fight, I don’t care what night it is, who we’re playing against and as big as he was for our team tonight individually, he was huge for me. He stayed in my ear all game and kept talking to me.”
Play of the Game
OKC caught a break with two missed 3-pointers by James Harden on back-to-back possessions late in the third quarter. In the final possession of the quarter, Paul advanced the ball the timeline to Dennis for a pull up 3-pointer from 31-feet out with one second left on the clock. The ball splashed through the nets at the buzzer to bring the game back to within one point and building up incredible momentum going into the final 12-minutes of the game.
Stat of the Night
The Thunder’s bench outscored Houston’s 43-13 marking the second straight game in which OKC's reserves have bested the Rockets’. While Schröder packed the biggest punch in terms of scoring with his team-high 30 points, it was guys like Darius Bazley and Nerlens Noel who chipped in timely, much needed buckets throughout the game. And when Dort was tagged with his third personal foul late in the second quarter, it was Terrance Ferguson who stepped in and defended Harden. In his three minutes of play, he snatched a steal and forced tough looks for the league’s leading scorer.
“That’s what we need,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Our bench is a big part of who we are identity wise and they played a big part in it tonight … we’re a team and we rely on our bench as well as our starters.”
Quotes of the Night
“Stay relentless and follow the game plan. We know through our experiences in the first couple of games that if we want to win, we gotta do it for a full 48 and we did so tonight.” –Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
“The main thing was to never give up. Always play hard, and play till the end.” –Lu Dort
After hard work to even out the series, the Thunder will have a day off for practice and film before Game 5 on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. CT.