OKLAHOMA CITY – Russell Westbrook made it interesting again.
And as the Oklahoma City Thunder star’s catch phrase goes, why not?
He’s the NBA’s most divisive talent, the man who can inspire the masses one day and infuriate them the next. Only this time, just two days after his late failings had everything to do with a Game 2 loss to the Houston Rockets in their first-round playoff series, his Thunder survived in a 115-113 win at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
After Westbrook missed two of four free throws in the final 1:05 of play, including his last attempt with eight seconds left, the Rockets’ James Harden missed a three-pointer from the right wing with Andre Roberson contesting. Alas, the Thunder cut the Rockets’ series lead to 2-1 and will now enter Game 4 on Sunday with a chance to even it up.
Westbrook played a much more balanced game than the controversial 51-point, 43-shot triple-double in Game 2, finishing with 32 points (11-of-24 shooting), 13 rebounds and 11 assists. But the sliver of hope for these Thunder, the thing that they simply must maintain if there’s any chance of recovering here, is that they managed to survive without Westbrook on the floor this time around. And as he admitted afterward, it was a matter of trust.
“I had to do a better job at trusting my teammates for 48 minutes,” said Westbrook, who had taken 18 fourth-quarter shots in Game 2 (missing 14) but took just seven in the Game 3 fourth quarter (hitting three). “Tonight, those guys made plays throughout the whole game. That’s what I tried to do.”
To Westbrook’s credit, he has always refused to criticize his supporting cast – no matter how futile their efforts. So when he was asked to compare and contrast the before and after, to highlight the ways that he helped the efforts of the “others,” as TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal has long referred to role players, Westbrook wasn’t having it.
“Well for one, we’re all one team,” he said. “I don’t have a cast. I don’t have ‘other’ guys. We’re all in this together, and my teammates have been doing a great job all season long. The last few games, we’ve been doing a great job as well, and we’ll continue to trust in each other and our abilities to be able to stay a team and stay as one.”
All season long, the Thunder without Westbrook was the equivalent to the varsity team being replaced by JV. They struggled to score, struggled to find a rhythm, and struggled to scare even the lowliest of NBA foes. Yet after turning in a woeful minus-15 mark in Game 2 while playing without Westbrook, they were just minus-1 this time around.
Thunder forward Taj Gibson poured in 20 points (10-of-13 shooting), Victor Oladipo had 12, and Enes Kanter had 10 in just 11 minutes. Center Steven Adams hit just two shots, but one was as big as they came: a putback after a missed Westbrook three-pointer with 35 seconds left that put the Thunder up 113-111.
“I think we’ve gotten better from game to game,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “This is a team that offensively is really hard to guard, (and) for the first time this series they played Anderson at the center spot and played four guards around him. So they have had three three-point shooters out there….They are a team that offensively can go on these incredible runs and really make a lot of shotts. I really felt from Game One to Game Two to Game Three we’ve gotten better.”
Truth be told, though, this was yet another example of why the Thunder are so hard-pressed to keep up with a Rockets team that is so vastly superior when it comes to offensive firepower. The Rockets, who broke NBA records during the regular season for three-pointers made and attempted, scored 113 points despite hitting just 10 of 35 attempts (and four of 21 in the second half) from beyond the arc. They had the game down to a final shot despite letting the Thunder shoot 55.4% from the field.
Trevor Ariza, Pat Beverley and Eric Gordon were a combined 1-for-12 from three-point range. Harden finished with 44 points (11-of-21 shooting), six rebounds and six assists, while Lou Williams added 22 points and forward Ryan Anderson had 18.
No matter what happens next, this is a high-wire act for a Thunder team that faces quite the quandary every time they share the floor with these Rockets. Because they’re so limited offensively, with a fast-paced style driven by Westbrook that masks the reality that they’re so ineffective in half-court sets, they can’t follow conventional wisdom by trying to slow the game and the high-octane Rockets offense down.
It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t type of situation, one that now has the Rockets averaging 115.3 points per game in the series – a mark that’s identical to their regular season average that was second in the NBA. On the worst of nights for Oklahoma City, the Rockets’ style nullifies their defense that finished 10th in defensive rating this season.
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The Thunder led 65-58 at halftime, but the locals were nervous nonetheless. Oklahoma City’s lead that was once as large as 15 points had been trimmed late in the second quarter, when the Rockets finished on a 9-4 run. And after the Thunder’s almost perfect start, the 19-7 lead nearly seven minutes in that included the Rockets missing nine of their first 11 shots, it was a far cry from the early blowout they’d been hoping for. Yet it was still a marked Thunder improvement from Game 2 because, well, Westbrook was getting help.
Not only did Gibson already have 12 points, but Oladipo awoke from a slumber that had nearly put the Thunder’s season to rest. After hitting just five of his first 26 shots through the first two games, including one of 13 from three-point range, he had 10 points on four-of-five shooting at the break.
And Westbrook, quite clearly, had shifted stylistic gears from his disastrous fourth quarter in Game 2 (in which he missed 14 of 18 shots). He had 14 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds. More specifically, he had taken approximately half the percentage of Oklahoma City’s shots as compared to Game 2 (10 of 45, good for 22.2%, compared to 43 of 97 and 44.3%).
“It’s just a matter of who gets stops,” Harden said. “We can’t start the game allowing, I think, 34 points in that first quarter (to the Rockets’ 25). That just can’t happen. We’ve got to do a better job of starting the game off, limiting our turnovers (they had 13)…I think that’s what got us in the whole early, giving their guys confidence and we just tried to play uphill from there.”
It wasn’t pretty for the Thunder, but it was interesting. And this time, with the Rockets looking to regain control of the series on Sunday, the Westbrook way worked out.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick
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