(1) That Comeback
To be honest, I nearly went to bed at halftime of last night’s game. Dillon was handling Up The Thunder on Twitter, Rob was writing the recap here on Daily Thunder — there aren’t many games that don’t require anything from me, but that was the case for Thunder/Rockets. With Houston leading by 26 in the second quarter and up 22 at halftime, the “your bed is right there” thought came crawling in. I’m not ashamed to admit I seriously considered turning off the television and chalking it up as a loss.
Then things started happening.
Though I understand statistics, probability, and a host of other factors that help determine the outcome of games, ultimately I know that wins and losses are decided by smaller, less obvious catalysts like the shirt I’m wearing or the specific seat I’m in when momentum starts to shift. Once the Thunder started rolling and making their comeback moves on the Rockets, I, by law, was required to remain exactly where I was. I know how this works and the last thing I’m going to do is mess with a good thing.
And that third quarter was certainly a good thing, huh? This Thunder team has a knack for creating fleeting moments of dominance that crack a window and offer a peek at what they’re capable of when firing on all cylinders. OKC outscored the Rockets 42-20 in the third quarter of last night’s game, turning a 22-point halftime hole into a 90-90 tie heading into the fourth quarter. Paul George dropped 13 points in the third, Dennis Schroder added 13 of his own, and Terrance Ferguson chipped in 11 for good measure. What’s more, the Thunder defense held Houston to 6-of-19 shooting in the third (31.6%), 1-of-9 from downtown (11.1%), and James Harden created just five points on 0-of-3 from the field. OKC also won 8-2 in second chance points, 7-0 in fast break scoring, and had a 13-5 advantage on the glass.
It was a third quarter master class and the Rockets hated every moment of it.
45 points (12/22 FG, 6/14 3P, 15/18 FT), 11 rebounds, three assists, one steal, and +16 in his 41 minutes. Have a day, Paul George.
George went head to head with Harden in a marquee matchup between MVP candidates, and, like Giannis Antetokounmpo before him, Harden came up on the wrong end of that showdown. Whether or not George will win the award is of no true importance. What’s important is that he’s playing like the most valuable and the Thunder need every bit of his production.
I mean, OKC has won 10 of their last 11 games. Here are PG13’s performances in the stretch:
- 31 PTS, W
- 31 PTS, W
- 36 PTS, W
- 23 PTS, W
- 36 PTS, W
- 37 PTS, W
- 43 PTS, W
- 37 PTS, L
- 39 PTS, W
- 27 PTS, W
- 45 PTS, W
- Total: 35 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.5 SPG, 48.3% FG, 48% 3P, 85.8% FT, +14.5
Unbelievable numbers in what’s becoming a truly unbelievable season for the six-time All-Star. Last night’s nationally televised 45-point explosion could end up being the crown jewel in his growing case for MVP if he keeps this up.
(3) Triple-Double Russ
Russell Westbrook did that thing he does yet again last night, recording his ninth consecutive triple-double with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists on 8-of-21 shooting. The nine straight ties Wilt Chamberlain’s record for most consecutive triple-doubles in NBA history — yet, it still feels run of the mill for the former MVP.
However, after another sub-40 percent shooting performance and a season-high 10 turnovers, Westbrook criticism remains. My Daily Thunder predecessor took aim at such criticism today on Twitter:
The most intriguing part of Westbrook’s game has always been how polarizing it is in nature, right? Like Royce said, some people simply don’t like the way he plays. Then again, others have unconditional love for everything the point guard does. You don’t find many folks that have mixed feelings for Westbrook. It’s typically love or hate and nothing in between.
That being said, I maintain a healthy level of apprehension when it comes to Westbrook’s shooting. The field goal percentage is its lowest since his rookie season, his 3-point percentage is the lowest since his second season in the league, and his free throw percentage has never been lower. These aren’t opinions, they’re statistics. Excellence in other categories doesn’t negate the shortcomings in the shooting department — and the shooting struggles don’t negate excellence in the other categories. I think it’s OK to bring up and discuss, given you don’t beat the dead horse for too long. The two arguments can coexist.
But in the spirit of fairness, Westbrook absolutely does deserve credit for his 2018-19 campaign. And one could even argue that it’s his best season yet — if only because the team is playing for something more significant than what was realistic during his run at the MVP award. If the team keeps winning, particularly against marquee opponents, the noise surrounding his shooting will naturally fade.
I mean, probably not. It’s Russell Westbrook, after all.
But he is having a great season. Shooting percentages included. Don’t get it twisted.
(4) Unsung Heroes
With PG13 going nuclear and Russ tying Wilt for most consecutive games with a triple-double, there was little limelight left to go around in the post game madness. Here’s some recognition for the guys who did the dirty work last night in Houston:
- Terrance Ferguson: Ferg was a +16 in 35 minutes, scoring 15 points on 3-of-5 shooting from long range. 11 of his 15 came in the pivotal third quarter and he was also tasked with guarding Harden for stretches of the night. Another solid performance for the young man and his importance will only grow now that Alex Abrines is no longer with the team.
- Deonte Burton: Burton failed to score a point and picked up three fouls in his 10 minutes of action. However, he was a team-high +18 and was on the floor when the team started its comeback march in the third quarter. He logged just over seven minutes in the third and was a +14 in that stretch. What he lacks in ability, he certainly makes up for in effort and grittiness. Sure seems like he’s going to end up on the main roster for the rest of the season.
- Jerami Grant: Grant pitched in eight points, eight rebounds, two blocks, and two steals in his 35 minutes. He turned an ankle late and will reportedly miss Monday’s game against the Blazers, but he did a lot of little necessities against the Rockets.
- Dennis Schroder: Schroder is becoming the Thunder’s second half spark plug, illustrated again by last night’s 13-point third quarter that saw him shoot 4-of-6 and finish the frame as a +10 in a shade more than four minutes. Billy Donovan elected to run with Terrance Ferguson in the fourth due to his ability as a defender, but Schroder’s role in turning the game around was big.
(5) Upcoming Gauntlet
Though OKC has won 10 of 11 — including wins over Houston, Milwaukee, Portland, and Philadelphia — the upcoming schedule is a true minefield. According to Tankathon, the remaining 27 games create the toughest closing stretch in the NBA:
While the road doesn’t get any easier for the Thunder, the recent stretch of play is encouraging. OKC is third in the Western Conference, but leads fourth-place Portland by three games and trails the second place Nuggets by one game. The odds of securing home court advantage in the postseason are growing as we near the All-Star break.
There are still concerns about a slipping defense and roster depth, but this Thunder team is proving itself capable of taking care of business against all levels of competition. It may take some other-worldly performances like last night’s second half in Houston, but if you’re waiting for a late-season collapse, you might be waiting for something that isn’t going to come.