As the series shifts to Houston for Game 5 in this first-round series, the Thunder trail 3-1, losing two of the last three. Each game has been hyper-competitive, with the Houston Rockets having outscored the Thunder by just six total points over three games. But being close should be cold comfort to the Thunder, as they face elimination tonight on the road.
SIX THINGS FROM THE WEEK
This block was something special.
Russell Westbrook. While I know not to ask Westbrook this question, the painful truth is that the Thunder just aren’t very good when Westbrook sits. Over the last three games, the Thunder have a net rating of +11 when Westbrook is on the court per nbawowy. When Westbrook sits, the Thunder’s net rating plummets to -67 (!!!!!). On the other hand, the Rockets sport a net rating of +11 when James Harden plays vs. +1 when he sits.
Though, as Westbrook rightfully pointed out, basketball is a team game. The Thunder’s devastating bench results are not solely caused by Westbrook’s presence on the pine. The Rockets thrive when Harden sits because their bench is boosted by guys like Lou Williams, Nene Hilario, and Eric Gordon, who actually lead the Rockets in net rating. In fact, the Rockets have played just eight players (disregarding the blowout minutes in game 1) this entire series. Billy Donovan, however, has given rotation minutes to thirteen different players and has stubbornly refused to shorten his bench, going at least ten deep in every game.
Look at the box scores from Sunday’s game. In Alex Abrines’s fifteen minutes, the Thunder were outscored by 9. In Kanter’s eight minutes, the Thunder were likewise outscored by 9. In the eight insufferable minutes without Westbrook, the Thunder were outscored by 18. And remember now, the Thunder lost by four.
While Donovan seems to be flummoxed when it comes to shortening his rotation, the fix staring the Thunder right in the face is parking Abrines, Kanter, and Cole on the bench except in emergency situations. Abrines has no business guarding Williams or Gordon. Kanter’s one of the worst pick and roll defenders in the league. And Cole isn’t an upgrade over Semaj Christon, who has been wearing street clothes the last two games.
It isn’t about when Westbrook sits, it’s about who’s playing, and the Thunder have done a pretty terrible job of getting the right guys on the court when Westbrook is not.
Tale of Three Quarters. In the category of “facts that are interesting, incredibly frustrating, but unfortunately meaningless,” the Thunder have outscored the Rockets by 17 total points in the first three quarters of the last three games. Conversely, they’ve been outscored by 23 in fourth quarters. In Sunday’s game, the Thunder held a lead from the 9:33 mark of the first quarter, all the way until the 9:41 mark of the fourth quarter. In Game 2, the Thunder didn’t trail at any point during the first, second, or third quarter, until the Rockets took their first lead with 8:07 to go in the fourth quarter. All told (and this will make you want to throw your computer through a window), the Thunder have had a lead for over 80 minutes in the Games 2 and 3 out of a total of 96 minutes.
Andre Roberson. I could go on and on about how incredible Andre Roberson has been this playoff series (and actually, I did before I failed to properly save my work). His scoring is up, he’s shooting the ball well, and his defense has been masterful, despite drawing the impossible assignment of stopping James “Three-Shout Foul” Harden. But Roberson has been making waves recently for his free throw shooting, or more particularly, his misses.
This season, Roberson was the second-worst free-throw shooting in the league, and he’s been so bad that the Rockets decided to intentionally foul Roberson even though the Rockets held the lead. On Sunday, after Westbrook cut the Rockets lead to just one with 4:39 remaining in the game, the Thunder did not get a true offensive possession again until 3:01 was left on the clock. By the time Donovan pulled Roberson, the one-point deficit had stretched to five, and the Thunder missed out on four possessions, as Roberson went just 2-8 from the line during the stretch.
Credit to Mike D’Antoni for deploying the strategy, but also discredit Donovan for sticking with Roberson for as long as he did. Look, Roberson is a very bad free-throw shooter. He has been bad all year. You can’t expect that with the season on the line, Roberson will magically learn how to make contact with the rim on his free throw attempts. And even though Roberson was by far the best at defending Harden, the undeniable truth is that you can’t come back from a deficit if you can’t score. In a virtual must-win game, with every possession critical, Donovan let four critical possessions slip away. Oh, and this was a two-possession game in the end.
So close to something special.
I thought the Thunder might pull this one out.
And then this happened.
Yeah, that’s a foul.
AND ONE MORE MAKES SEVEN
Triple Doubles. With his third straight triple double on Sunday, Westbrook joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to accomplish the feat in the playoffs. But far more meaningful than the record books, is that we can finally put to bed the ridiculous notion that Westbrook was hunting for triple doubles all season. Granted there were a few instances where Westbrook was stat-padding in the regular season, but players don’t average a triple double in the post season. Triple doubles are incredibly difficult to achieve at any point, but especially so in the playoffs, when games are closer, each possession is more meaningful, and stat chasing is simply not happening by any player who wants to win. And Westbrook wants to win. It’s been said all year long by any one who’s paid attention to the Thunder, but Westbrook is getting triple doubles out of necessity, not vanity. So, with the season slipping away, Westbrook continues to pile up triple doubles because that’s what it takes for the Thunder the compete.