Russell Westbrook’s sixth triple-double of the season propelled the Oklahoma City Thunder to a hard-fought 116-108 victory over the the Houston Rockets on Friday night. Westbrook finished with 26 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds. It was the 25th triple-double of his career.
“That’s just part of my job,” said Westbrook of his performance. “I was trying to find guys and get them the ball where they could score. I just tried to keep the pace up.”
Kevin Durant had 33 points and 12 rebounds for the Thunder, who have won 10 of 11 overall and six straight at home. This proved to be an interesting win for the Thunder. They had to persevere through the game in order to get the win.
“That was a challenging and a difficult game for both teams,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I thought we had some good looks from the field, but we had a little bit of a drought there. We had a hard time scoring. Our guys kept sticking with it and played through it. I thought as the game wore on our defense got better and better.”
The Rockets were able to neutralize the Thunder right at the jump. They had matchups and a high level of aggression that the Thunder were unable to combat early on. The matchups were the interesting thing early on. The chess match began as Houston started Trevor Ariza at the 4. With Ariza’s ability to stretch the floor, that was going to force Serge Ibaka to defend differently, and the Thunder to protect the paint differently. Ariza drilled a 3-point basket on the first possession and the path to the paint was there for the Rockets.
Conversely, James Harden “defended” Ibaka. That provided an opportunity where Houston had chances to run if they could grab defensive boards. They were able to do that early and often. They did not give up an offensive rebound in the first quarter on OKC’s 13 misses. Coming into the game, OKC was the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team. More on this later.
The Thunder ultimately switched Ibaka off of Ariza and put him on Corey Brewer in the second quarter. That was the right move to make because Ibaka could afford to sag off Brewer a little more to help defend. If Brewer was going to be the one taking uncontested 3s or try to attack, the Thunder were likely going to live with that much more than it being Ariza. OKC had to find a counter to what Houston was able to do in order to build up a lead as large as 12 in the second quarter. The Thunder opted to use the Hack-a-Dwight strategy. Houston’s 12-point dwindled down to as few as three in the second quarter and allowed the Thunder to tie the game back up in the third mainly due to Dwight Howard’s inability to make his free throws
“I thought it was a way to maybe see where he would be at with his free throw shooting,” Donovan said of the intentional fouling. “We decided to do it. When you do that, it slows the game down. It breaks momentum, breaks rhythm. I don’t know if it broke their rhythm or not, but it certainly got us a few more possessions without them scoring.”
I’m not sure if he was frustrated from the constant beating he was taking with the fouls, but Howard was ejected midway through the third quarter after being called for his second technical foul. He was tossed for arguing with official Marc Davis. Honestly, it seemed like a quick trigger from Davis, but I have to imagine Howard was frustrated. We’ll never really know as he did not speak with the media after the game. While Howard’s free throw deficiency allowed the Thunder to get back into the game, his departure opened up the lane and Houston was unable to rebound the ball. The Thunder had just two offensive rebounds in the first half. They were able to attack the glass at will once Howard was ejected, finishing the game with 11 offensive rebounds.
It wasn’t really an adjustment or something the Thunder could have really planned for, but Dion Waiters actually did a nice job defending Harden. On top of that, Durant took on the challenge in the second half and held his own against Harden. Sure, Harden finished with 33 points, but he went 8-of-22 from the field. Both players made things difficult for the former OKC reserve. The Thunder now know that they have three different options to throw at Harden. Andre Roberson has the natural defensive skill set you want to have against Harden, Waiters has the frame to stay with him, and Durant has the length that can make things difficult.
“He’s going to get a lot of shots,” Donovan said of Harden. “What you don’t want to do is give him a lot of 3s and put him on to the free throw line. I thought we did a really nice job of getting him inside the (3-point) line.”
It really felt like Houston had a nice strategy and overall approach at the start of the game. They had the Thunder on their heels. They did a great job pushing pace, using those mismatches that they created, and established a double-digit lead. In the end, OKC kept their composure, while Houston did not, and provided enough energy to counter Houston’s attack. Looking at the standings, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Houston and OKC could be paired up as opponents in the first round of the playoffs. If that’s the case, the series will get contentious in short order. It would be an extremely entertaining and painstakingly frustrating series to watch.
- It was quite apparent early that both teams were geeked up for this game. The energy level was rather high for both teams. You could make an argument that OKC’s energy in the game was higher than their recent road trip.
- Statistical evidence of the energy: Houston shot just 37.9 from the field. More of that energy and effort on the defensive end of the floor will go a long way for the Thunder.
- Westbrook versus Patrick Beverley is must-see television now. On the first defensive possesion, Beverley picked Westbrook up full court. Beverley fouled him. Westbrook looked at Houston’s bench, laughed, and winked at them. It really feels like Beverley’s role in the NBA is to pester Westbrook.
- In one trip in the second quarter, Howard laid Durant out with a hard screen, then put Kyle Singler in a headlock. There were so many moments in the game where it seemed like things were close to boiling over. It definitely makes me think a series between these two teams could create some bad blood.
- There was an ever-so-rare Steven Adams steal on the perimeter in the second quarter. It led to a fast break opportunity with Adams and Singler. It went about as well as anyone would expect: With Adams diving on the floor as they turned it over. If you didn’t see it, consider yourself extremely lucky.
- Friday’s game marked the full return of D.J. Augustin back into the rotation as the backup point guard, due to Cameron Payne’s concussion. There’s still no update for Payne’s return. All in all, Augustin provided the Thunder with serviceable minutes, which is impressive considering he has been on ice for the last couple of weeks.
- There was a weird give and take the Thunder had to endure against Houston. Ibaka was non-existent in the game, shooting 1-of-7 from the field for just two points. Howard’s ejection allowed the Thunder to play Enes Kanter more in the second half. The end result: 20 points in 25 minutes for Kanter.
- I seriously wonder if Harden gets a neck massage both before and after the game. That’s the only way I can imagine he’s able to have full use of his neck after a game. He overly exaggerates absorbing contact with his neck. I hope he also has a good chiropractor.
- In related news, it’s not that often where you see a team go to the line more than the Thunder. Such is life when Harden and Howard on are on the opposing team.
- Donovan opted to roll with an all-bench lineup to start the fourth quarter, keeping Durant and Westbrook on the bench. In the end, the Thunder extended their lead by two in the time both stars sat. Bullet dodged.
- I can report with confidence that only one person gave Royce Young side-eye before, during, and after the game. If you’re unsure of the backstory, you can check out the details here. Westbrook did give Beverley the business though during the game.
Next up: Hosting Washington on Monday.