The Houston Rockets came in with the odds stacked against them in this series, and the Chesapeake Energy Arena was ready to make some noise. The nation had just witnessed the Miami Heat obliterate the Milwaukee Bucks, and Thunder fans tuning in all over the nation wanted to see their team do the same to the Rockets.
They did so, and it started unravelling for the inexperienced Houston Rockets quickly, eventually resulting in a 120-91 loss that was just as lopsided as it looked from tipoff to finish, almost.
After the Rockets lost the tip, Houston then went 0-of-4 from floor, and the Thunder got out to an 8-2 lead.
Just a couple minutes into the quarter, with the Thunder already up 13-2, Serge Ibaka swatted James Harden's shot like a spiked volleyball down across the court.
The crowd began to roar, and the Thunder shook the Chesapeake. Ibaka had once again sparked his high-scoring teammates and made things easier for his team to open up a lead.
Fast forwarding a few minutes found the Houston Rockets in penalty at then 4:02 mark, trailing 16-6
James Harden then scored six straight points, including a twisting layup as he took hard contact and hit the shot anyway. His efforts got Houston back within five points at 24-19. Harden would finish the quarter 3-of-7 shooting and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line for 11 points.
Russell Westbrook led OKC with six points on 3-of-9 shooting. Kevin Durant left the game 1-of-3 from the floor with just six points, but the Thunder led by seven despite shooting 36 percent from the floor. This was because Harden's teammates were 2-of-13 from the floor for just eight points, and Harden just can't make this a solo effort.
The Thunder led 26-19 after the first quarter, and then they began to show what has made them the best team in the West over the last two seasons.
Houston had already had some difficulty, then it was dealt a tough hand as Chandler Parsons' foul trouble brought a not-yet-rested Harden off the bench early in the second at 9:59 mark with the Rockets down just two points.
What happened when Chandler Parsons went out and why?
The difference when Parsons is off the floor is profound. He impacts the game in a lot of subtle ways that aren't seen in the box score.
And when he isn't doing that, he's stuffing the stat sheet. People will begin to take notice of Parsons as the Rockets take the national stage, and this year's postseason could potentially be his coming-out party.
The only thing stopping him is the defensive assignments he will be drawing. But by and large, Parsons can handle them like a small forward he is very reminiscent of, Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen.
Parsons game isn't just similar—his numbers are close to identical. Pippen posted better defensive stats, but that may come in time for Parsons as the Rockets begin to play better team defense, force more deflections and acquire some interior defenders. That will enable Parsons to cheat, play passing lanes and then come up with more thefts.
3 Guard Rotation 🔥 @33Trigger
Pippen Year 2: 14.4 ppg, 3.5 apg, 4.2 rpg - Parsons Year 2: 15.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 5.3 rpg,#Bulls Wins: 45. #Rockets Wins: 45...look similar?4/22/2013, 4:03:00 AM
Parsons didn't have his best game of the season, but he still found a way to impact it. No Rockets outside of Harden had their typical games, and nerves may have played a role.
Parsons' 4-of-11 shooting wasn't the worst night for the Rockets, and Lin may have felt the pressure even more.
Things just didn't quite go the way Daryl Morey had hoped they would, as his plan is starting to come to fruition. The Rockets would make their runs, but this is a series many expect to go 4-0, or 4-1 at the very worst, in favor of the home team.
Harden would make a big impact in the quarter, but by the half the Rockets had hit just 13-of-31 from the floor aside from their elite 2-guard's night.
Ibaka again began to initiate some offense with his defensive efforts. He swatted a Houston shot in transition, which ignited an ultra-fast OKC break which led to a six-point lead again late in the second quarter. Ibaka's defense just kept erasing easy shots, and he had three blocks in the first half.
Ibaka is just 23 years old, and he's the kind of 4-man that is under everyone's radar until it is too late and he's filled the stat sheet. He even impressed what is indisputably the best Twitter parody account:
Not Bill Walton @NotBillWalton
Serge Ibaka is chopping down the Beard of James Harden 100,000 follicles at a time, displacing the magical fireflies that call it home!4/22/2013, 1:58:38 AM
The Thunder went on a quick run over the two minutes in the closing part of the quarter, going 14-5 as they started to pull away from a Houston team that was doing everything it could to stay in it. Harden just ended up finding it too much to manage keeping pace with two talents equal to or better than him.
It worked once during the regular season. One time he went nuts and erupted for 46, but it wasn't happening tonight.
His 17 first-half points helped the Rockets stay within striking distance, but the eventual double-digit lead they built as the Chesapeake Energy Arena began to chant "O-K-C" led to more Russell Westbrook buckets. The Thunder found themselves up 13 at the half, and the Thunders premier tandem combined for 22 first half points.
Durant also posts a Player Efficiency Rating of 28.35, which is over two points higher than the three last seasons which saw the one-and-done Texas star lead the NBA in scoring average. The George "Iceman" Gervin comparisons that have circulated amongst us are pretty accurate.
The Thunder closed the half with their largest lead of the night, and then Kevin Durant curled off a screen to hit a jumper. James Harden had an "oh by the way" buzzer-beating layup, but the gap was torn open as the game went to intermission.
Harden had a great first half, but none of his teammates scored more than eight, and Jeremy Lin disappointed badly in his first playoff outing. And unlike when the team won in Harden's 46-point performance, he just didn't have as much help from guys like Jeremy Lin, who hit just 1-of-7 from the field for four points while recording four assists and four turnovers.
The Rockets were negative-23 with Lin on the court, and they really only seemed to perform well during Omer Asik's court time, a 27-minute span of time during which the Thunder only outscored the Rockets by three.
Asik can impact a game defensively, rebound at an elite level and give maximum effort. Could Asik be a key to this series if the Rockets are going to come back? It sounds like an unlikely proposition that a role player could make a profound impact, but Asik is clearly the second-most important Rocket, as I wrote for Bleacher Report.
Asik is my pick for the Most Improved Player award. The Turkish big man saw an expanded role but also honed many aspects of his games at which he had struggled, including catching the ball, finishing through contact and making quicker defensive rotations.
It all showed up in the stat sheet. He averaged a double-double, helping Daryl Morey say "I told you so" to everyone who criticized his three-year, $25 million deal for Asik.
Meanwhile, Westbrook had 10 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, working his way towards a possible triple double.
OKC led by 20 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
For the rest of this series, Kevin McHale is finding himself without the weapons to throw at Scott Brooks in the chess battle. For every James Harden-led run, Russell Westbrook pushed it ahead for a lob to a Thunder big man, or Durant knocked down threes.
The Rockets are a team that can make quick runs. The Thunder just happened to do everything the Rockets do, better, while also playing defense. That's why Brooks' team won 60 games and McHale's at this point is more of a "feel good forty-five."
Game 2 will happen Wednesday (April 24) from OKC, and it will be televised on TNT at 7 p.m. ET. Tune into hear Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson and the crew, as the Thunder look to go up 2-0 and surprise absolutely no one in the league.
The only question that seems to remain for most of us is: "Can Harden just go hard and blow up for 50?" and also: "Can the Rockets steal a game and put a scare into the Thunder?"
Doubtful, on most accounts—but the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champions and have their eyes set firmly on proving to the Miami Heat that the Larry O'Brien belongs in Oklahoma City this year.
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