The Houston Rockets are a dangerous and scary basketball team.
Somehow, someway, more often than not, they win games. If James Harden is struggling, Eric Gordon is there to pick up the slack. If Patrick Beverley shoots just 2-for-13, that’s no issue either because Nene will gladly erupt for 28 points without missing a single attempt. Even when one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league is hitting just 32 percent from deep in the series, the Rockets have still figured out how to still come out on top, no matter how they manage to get to that final buzzer.
That’s very bad news for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who now must win or go home in Game 5.
After another hard-fought effort through the third quarter, the Thunder were unable to grind out a victory in a must-win contest at home in Game 4, falling 113-109. Ultimately, the Rockets have been too good and too deadly when the moments have mattered most — a label that simply cannot be shared by their opponents. Now with Oklahoma City looking to stave off elimination on the road in Game 5, they’ll need to be better than ever and decide what to do with Andre Roberson in the fourth quarter.
Roberson, who is set to cash in as a restricted free agent this summer, has been one of the Thunder’s best players this postseason. Coming into the playoffs, his All-NBA-worthy defense was considered his strongest attribute, but it has been his surprisingly efficient offense that has turned heads against the Rockets. Unfortunately for him, Roberson, a career 49.3 percent free throw shooter, was forced to attempt 12 of them in Game 4 — of which he made just two. Employing the “Hack-A” strategy with the lead was intriguing, but with the Thunder committed to Roberson’s defensivve impact on Harden, the Rockets sent him to the line over and over again.
By the time Thunder head coach Billy Donovan finally pulled the plug, it was already too late momentum-wise and now his team finds itself in 3-1 series deficit. And if Mike D’Antoni’s postgame answer about the strategy is any indication, Donovan will need a clear, concise game plan should the Rockets go after Roberson again in Game 5.
“I’d probably vote against it if they asked the coaches,” D’antoni said. “I don’t like it. It’s not great for basketball, but it’s a rule and we’ll take advantage of it.”
Elsewhere, more of the same issues reared their head for the Thunder as there was not enough help for Westbrook. And while Westbrook shut down any talk of the team struggling without him on the floor during Sunday’s postgame interviews, it’s still been the Thunder’s biggest weakness in the series.
Enes Kanter was a solid Sixth Man of the Year candidate in 2016-17, but in this series, Donovan’s only been able to play him a total of 41 minutes. Somehow, Norris Cole was outscored by 18 points in the nine minutes he was on the floor for Oklahoma City in Game 4, and Taj Gibson’s difference-making Game 3 (20 points) evaporated to the tune of just six points and two rebounds in 22 minutes.
So, in the end, this is more or less a eulogy for Oklahoma City — a team driven by a historically great MVP candidate. The Thunder’s performance so far in this series is a stark reminder that nobody can do it alone. Westbrook, who notched a triple-double in the first half on Sunday, is doing and saying all the right things as the team’s leader, but the ugly truth remains the same. There’s not enough consistent firepower here for the Thunder to push any situation in their favor, despite the slim margins of defeat, other than in Game 1.
For example, there’s been little said about Lou Williams in this series. Outside of a shaky 3-for-11 start in Game 1, he’s been fantastic for Houston, racking up totals of 21, 22 and 18 points on 51.8 percent shooting in the subsequent contests. Needless to say, Westbrook would kill for that type of consistent play off the bench. It’s nothing against the Thunder, nor an argument to discredit Westbrook’s one-of-a-kind season, but there’s a reason why they’re just the sixth-best team in the conference.
At this point, the Thunder need perfection in three straight games to upset Houston, a challenge that’ll have Donovan turning over every page in the book for an edge. As for Houston, they’ll keep humming along — even as they continue to struggle from three-point range — just waiting for their chance to land the knockout blow. While the Thunder have, of course, relied heavily on Westbrook, the Rockets have benefited from somebody new stepping up in each contest — in Game 4, that was Nene.
The Brazilian veteran scored his highest point total in any game since late Feb. 2014 with 28 off the bench in 25 minutes of action. As an extra boost, Trevor Ariza scored in double-figures for the first time in the series with 14 points, adding five rebounds, three assists and three steals for good measure. Honestly, there’s not much here to add otherwise — the Rockets aren’t shooting up to their standard from deep, but they’re still winning. Harden shot just 5-for-16 in Game 4, but they still won.
Ryan Anderson, the NBA’s ninth-best three-point shooter by makes this season, had his best game of the series in their sole loss and has made just 4 of his 19 attempts outside of Game 3. And yet, you guessed it, the Rockets are still just one game away from eliminating the Thunder and moving on to the conference semi-finals.
Outlasting Westbrook hasn’t been easy, but the Rockets’ well-coached efforts have forced the Thunder into uncomfortable decisions. With Roberson poised to shoot another series of fourth-quarter free throws and Kanter glued to the bench, Donovan is quickly running out of options and opportunities to find support for Westbrook.
Who Wins Game 5?
Outside of a shaky fourth quarter in Game 2, Westbrook has been phenomenal in this series — make no mistake about that. But against an elite Western Conference opponent, the Thunder have run out of steam in just about every game thus far. There were certainly signs of life for the Thunder in Game 4, like their 14-block effort or Oladipo showing some much-needed ball handling chops without Westbrook on the floor, but if that couldn’t get things done, what will?
Back on the road where the Thunder went 19-22 during the regular season, expect another heroic performance out of Westbrook with the result staying more or less the same. The Houston Rockets should win Game 5 and send the Oklahoma City Thunder home for good. Godspeed at the free throw line, Andre.
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