The Oklahoma City Thunder started Game 2 of their first-round series Wednesday looking like the best version of themselves. Russell Westbrook pushed the ball at every opportunity and put pressure on the Houston Rockets’ defense, but he didn’t have to force anything. The Rockets ignored Andre Roberson, so the forward cut to the basket and Steven Adams found him for an easy dunk. Taj Gibson punished Ryan Anderson in the post once, and when he missed on his second try, he recovered the rebound and put it back in.
Behind active, energetic defense and a huge advantage on the offensive glass, the Thunder built a 16-4 lead on the road and maintained a double-digit lead midway through the second quarter. This was exactly what Oklahoma City hoped for after its Game 1 debacle on Sunday.
The Thunder didn’t just lose the series opener; they were outclassed in every way. The final score was 118-87, and their biggest strength from the regular season didn’t even carry over. Westbrook scored 22 points on 23 shots, but more importantly, Oklahoma City — the league’s No. 1 rebounding and offensive rebounding team — was outrebounded 56-41, including 14-7 on the offensive glass.
It made sense, then, that the Thunder would look more like themselves when trying to escape Houston with a split. That much was easy enough to expect. What perhaps wasn’t as expected was the Rockets’ response to all this. It was measured and tough, two adjectives perhaps not associated enough with a team many have come to view as a fun-gunning squad without championship substance.
This game didn’t erase all those questions. They’ll have to do it against better teams than OKC before we go putting them into the championship conversation. But this was a champion’s response. When the Rockets found themselves in an early hole, they didn’t panic. Led by James Harden’s dazzling playmaking and a big boost off the bench from Lou Williams, they scored 36 points in the second quarter. Then, after Westbrook almost compiled a triple-double in the first half, they clamped down.
Nobody confuses Houston for a defense-first team. This is one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history, thanks largely to the offensive brilliance of Harden and coach Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets care deeply about their defense, though, and they believe that if they are merely pretty good on that end, they can beat anybody.
Houston assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik has been drilling the players on defense all season long. After giving up 68 points in the first half, they understood that they couldn’t let Oklahoma City bully them. The result: The Thunder scored 43 points in the second half on 14-for-50 (28 percent) shooting. Westbrook finished with the first 50-point triple-double in playoff history, but he shot 17 for 43 to get his 51, including 4 for 18 in the fourth quarter.
“We just tried to keep a guy in front of him, keep a hand up,” D’Antoni said in his post-game press conference. “If he makes shots, he makes shots. If he had continued what he did in the first half, then you go home and you play the next game. We just stuck with the game plan, guys hung in there. Jeff Bzdelik did a great job of calling some defenses where we start switching, and then we try to double him a couple times, try to throw him off balance. And then it comes down to the heart and soul and the want of the players. You know, they just kind of showed their resilience that they showed all year.”
The Rockets went on a 9-0 run late in the third quarter as soon as Westbrook went to the bench. In the fourth quarter, center Clint Capela contested a Victor Oladipo layup perfectly at the rim and, a few possessions later, rejected Westbrook. Beverley hounded Westbrook like he always does, and the team defense baited him into taking tough, contested jumpers over and over. D’Antoni credited Nene for his toughness on the inside, saying it’s infectious in the same way that Beverley’s is.
Harden had 36 points and eight assists, but those stats don’t tell much of the story. Since Houston was coming back for most of the game, its turnaround didn’t afford them the luxury of a comfortable win. Even when Westbrook was missing shots, the Thunder were trying to hammer the Rockets on the glass and be physical with them. This was the sort of contest where the Rockets needed to withstand that, stick to their guns and make plays on both ends. That resulted in a 10-0 run with Harden, Williams and Gordon all making clutch shots. Anderson executed a textbook vertical contest against Westbrook in that stretch, too.
Again, if Houston does advance past Oklahoma City, the question will be whether it can do this against a better offensive team. The Rockets won 55 games for a reason, though, and D’Antoni has come to expect that they will do whatever they need to do to overcome adversity. The only difference he sees is that they did it on a bigger stage now.
“It didn’t surprise me,” D’Antoni said. “They’ve done it all year. And whatever these guys do collectively as a group, they don’t surprise me. I just thought it was a great game, a great gut-check kind of win. You have to have those in the playoffs. You can’t play great all the time. We missed early shots, we didn’t get discouraged, we just hung in there.”
With the desperate Thunder trying to save their season on Friday, Houston will once again need to stick to its identity. That means hunting for 3-pointers, layups and free throws, of course, but it also means taking a punch and staying steady.