The more things change, the more they stay the same — and this notion practically sums up the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season in one fell swoop.
Despite their improvements in the rebounding department — a 48-37 advantage this time around — Russell Westbrook and the Thunder lost in Game 2 against Houston, 115-111. Westbrook tallied a massive triple-double with 51 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists, but a poor 4-for-18 shooting performance in the fourth quarter left the Thunder just short in Game 2.
As Westbrook fired away in an attempt to keep pace, he was, once again, let down by his supporting cast. Victor Oladipo, brought in to be Westbrook’s right-hand man, managed a marginally better output in Game 2, notching 11 points on 4-for-14 from the floor and nine rebounds, but it still wasn’t enough. Plagued by foul trouble, Steven Adams struggled again offensively, scoring just five points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Dueling Sixth Man of the Year candidates Louis Williams and Eric Gordon came alive in separate halves to provide the game-swinging contributions that allowed Houston to take a 2-0 series lead. In Game 1, Williams and Gordon combined for just 19 points on 6-for-19 shooting, but in Game 2, they erupted for 43 points on 16-for-28 shooting.
As the series now moves to Oklahoma City, the Thunder have two must-win games on their home floor. For the Thunder to claw back in this series, they must figure out how to keep pace when Westbrook isn’t on the floor, which is much easier said than done. Every time head coach Billy Donovan attempted to rest his star player, the Rockets would immediately respond with a small run — a factor that certainly led to Westbrook’s exhausted one-man show in the fourth quarter.
Furthermore, 24 total bench points just won’t get it done either — particularly so when only three of the starters score in double-figures as well. Oddly enough, it was Taj Gibson on the outside looking in as he played just 21 minutes in the loss. In pivotal moments, Donovan played Domantas Sabonis, who racked up three personal fouls in two minutes, Enes Kanter and Jerami Grant instead of Gibson.
If the Thunder want to regain some control in the series, the defensive-minded Gibson must play more, especially if the alternative option is Grant at center (the Thunder were outscored by 20 points while Grant was on the floor).
On that note, the Thunder should consider giving Doug McDermott some extra burn as the sharpshooter tallied 11 points on 3-for-4 shooting from three-point range in just 14 minutes. His contributions from deep accounted for three of the Thunder’s seven three-pointers, and they’ll need to hit as many from deep as possible to keep up with Houston.
As for the Rockets, they’re quickly reaching their comfort zone. Patrick Beverley, the Game 1 hero, chipped in with 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and frustrated Westbrook into that rough fourth quarter performance. Unluckily, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson continued to fire blanks with a combined 3-for-13 effort, but it was James Harden that would close out the game once again.
Harden shot just 7-for-17 from the floor, but did make 18 free throws. Houston’s superstar may not have put up a gaudy stat line similar to Westbrook’s in Game 2, but his late fourth quarter magic was enough to seal the victory. The Rockets shot just 11-for-29 from three-point range (well below their season average), but it ultimately didn’t matter.
While they’ll want more from Ariza and Anderson in Game 3, the Rockets defended their home court advantage. Even Andre Roberson’s cagey defense can only quell the Rockets’ potent offense for so long. With Williams and Gordon finally making their presence known, the Thunder will need something special to turn this series around — or, at the very least, a little more help for Westbrook from his teammates.
Who Wins Game 3?
Even at home, it’d be tough to take the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 right now. With Mike D’Antoni out-coaching Donovan at every turn, the Thunder had no option but to rely on Westbrook’s 43 field goal attempts in Game 2. Although Roberson has his hands full with Harden, the Thunder certainly missed his timely four three-pointers from Game 1. Unfortunately, the Thunder are going to need him to both annoy Harden and contribute offensively so long as players like Oladipo and Adams continue to be neutralized.
Until somebody steps up alongside Westbrook, the Rockets will have firm control of this series. Look for Westbrook to put up another major performance, but to run out of gas in the fourth quarter as the Rockets lock up an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.