Game 4 Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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As James Harden lined up a potential game-winning three-pointer with time expiring in Game 3, a few thoughts came to mind:

Backbreaker. An insurmountable lead. The knockout blow.

But as Harden’s attempt came up just short, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder likely had a different thought as the buzzer hit double zeroes: Hope.

At home in Game 3, the Thunder needed a big-time response to stay within reach in their first round matchup with the Rockets. After Westbrook’s brutal 4-for-18 fourth quarter in Game 2, and his overall lack of support in general, it was tough to envision a way back for the Thunder. In the end, however, all it took was a little bit of home cooking.

Anchored by the early efforts of Andre Roberson — who forced Harden into four turnovers in the first quarter — and Taj Gibson, the Thunder were locked in and swarming from the opening tip. Billy Donovan’s revolving rotation saw Semaj Christon and Kyle Singler on the outside looking in, their minutes instead given to Alex Abrines, Norris Cole and Doug McDermott. In return, the trio of shooters would make five much-needed three-pointers off the bench for Oklahoma City.

However, it was Westbrook’s reserved triple-double effort that will steal headlines in this one, and for good reason. Two nights after Westbrook’s reckless fourth quarter was the proverbial nail in the Thunder’s coffin, his collected, conscious performance was a game-changer in Game 3.

In Roberson’s case, his elevated postseason play could not be coming at a better time. Heading into restricted free agency, Roberson has proven his case as a growing two-way stud alongside Westbrook. With Roberson’s All-NBA-worthy defense on full display, his sudden burst of offense (he only averaged 6.6 PPG in the regular season) will have teams lining up to extend a rich offer sheet this summer. His 12 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks in Game 3 may not jump off the page, but Roberson was once again a difference-maker on the floor.

But even with the victory, there’s reason to be concerned for Oklahoma City. Patrick Beverley, who scored 21 and 15 points in Games 1 and 2 respectively, tallied just one point in the loss. Despite Roberson and Gibson’s near-heroic defensive stands and another lackluster Rockets performance from deep, Houston still had the chance to deliver the final blow.

Whenever Steven Adams wasn’t on the floor, the Rockets were able to attack the hoop with a high success rate, something Harden did in spades. His 44 points were a game-high as Harden did just about anything he wanted outside of making that final three-point attempt. While MVP votes were cast weeks ago, Game 3 certainly didn’t make the debate any clearer as both Westbrook and Harden were fantastic throughout.

The path to success is still a muddied one for the Thunder but they’ll look to replicate their Game 3 performance on Sunday. Although Roberson shot well from deep in the first two games of the series, he hit just 16 percent of his three-pointers on the road during the regular season. At home, however, his 30 percent rate is far more palpable and the Thunder will need that help once more in Game 4. If Westbrook can get contributions across the board like that again, the superstar will like the Thunder’s chances to even up the series on their home floor.

For Houston, Ryan Anderson’s return to form was a much-welcomed development in Game 3 and his 18 points picked up the slack for Beverley’s frustrating night. With that being said, the Rockets have shot just 32.8 percent from three-point range in their last two games combined (21-for-64). When the Rockets aren’t hitting from three at a more consistent clip, they’re leaving the door wide open for the Thunder to hang around.

All things considered, the Thunder played a near-perfect contest in Game 3, give or take a few untimely turnovers. Westbrook was efficient, he got plenty of help and the Rockets still haven’t played a game in which all their potent weapons were firing at once — and yet, the result was still there for the taking. If Beverley finds some of his red-hot form from the series openers, Game 4 could be an entirely different affair.

Who Wins Game 4?

Still, that Game 3 performance was something special from Oklahoma City, a sign that they’re more than just pretenders in this series. In front of a raucous hometown crowd, the Thunder pulled out all the stops in a momentum-swinging game. With Westbrook tallying the first back-to-back playoff triple-doubles since Jason Kidd did it back in 2002, the point guard seems poised to send this series back to Houston all tied up.

Donovan’s altered rotation has already paid dividends for the Thunder, so if they can continue to reasonably cut into Houston’s three-point advantage, they should hang around once again. In Game 4, expect another tightly contested showdown that sees Oklahoma City come out on top.