James Harden, Rockets Defeat Chris Paul, Thunder to Take 2-0 Series Lead

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2020

Houston Rockets' James Harden reacts to hi3 point basket during the first half against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets' end-of-season struggles haven't carried over to the playoffs, as the team took a 2-0 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder with Thursday's 111-98 victory. 

The Rockets rode a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter to turn an 80-77 deficit into a 14-point lead. This marks the fourth consecutive season that Houston has taken a 2-0 lead in its first-round series. 

The team opened the series firing on all cylinders with 123 points on 20-of-52 shooting from three-point range. Head coach Mike D'Antoni's squad has had its ups and downs this season amid the roster shuffling, but it looks to be hitting its stride at the right time.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City is in need of a quick turnaround if it wants to avoid another early playoff exit. The Thunder have dropped three straight games overall, tying their longest losing streak of the campaign. 


Notable Player Stats

  • James Harden: 21 PTS (5-16 FG), 9 AST, 5 REB, 3 STL
  • Danuel House Jr.: 19 PTS (6-13 FG), 9 REB, 3 AST
  • Jeff Green: 15 PTS (3-6 3-PT FG), 7 REB
  • Chris Paul: 14 PTS (6-15 FG), 6 REB, 2 AST
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 31 PTS (9-17 FG), 6 REB, 2 AST
  • Danilo Gallinari: 17 PTS (5-12 FG), 5 REB


Ugly Win Showcases Why Rockets Are Dangerous

The first two games of the series have shown the Rockets can win in multiple ways. They shot the lights out in Game 1 but didn't have nearly as much success Thursday. 

Houston only made 19 of 56 three-point attempts and shot 41.8 percent from the field overall. James Harden had a horrendous shooting day (2-of-11 from behind the arc), with the Thunder defense zeroing in on him. 

With Harden neutralized throughout the game, supporting players like Danuel House Jr., Jeff Green and P.J. Tucker picked up the slack. 

Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets

15pts now for Jeff Green! @memorialhermann l #OneMission https://t.co/eNrmiJ6P1s

ClutchFans @clutchfans

Danuel House is just out here knocking down threes, getting offensive boards and putbacks, locking up Chris Paul, finding open guys for triples and getting to the line. No big deal.

Mark Rodgers @markrsports

PJ Tucker way tougher than anyone OKC has. He’s set the tone for the series. OKC wilting.

When the Rockets remade their roster in February, getting rid of a traditional center to go with a small-ball lineup, there was concern about how that group would hold up during the postseason when games tend to be more physical. 

Things looked even more uncertain heading into the first round against the Thunder when Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported last week Russell Westbrook would miss at least "the first few games" of the series with a strained quad. 

The postseason has gotten off to an unconventional start, with the No. 1 seeds in each conference losing their first game for the first time since 2002-03. 

The Rockets have gone against conventional wisdom all season. The results through two postseason games suggest this group can make a deep run because of the multiple options it has available.


Limited Offensive Options Doom Thunder

Even though neither offense was particularly sharp, the Thunder's limitations on that side of the ball became apparent during their second-half collapse. 

Head coach Billy Donovan didn't mince words when talking to reporters about all of the problems his team had in Game 1. 

"The reality was we didn't play well enough. ... We didn't get back in transition," he said. "We gave up 20 corner three-point shots. We allowed the ball to go by us off the dribble. We got stagnant in the half court. We've just gotta play a lot better to our identity than what we did the other night." 

The Thunder opened the game looking like they made the necessary adjustments to attack the basket when they had the ball and played more aggressive defense to throw the Rockets out of rhythm. 

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

Thunder sagging around the lane, giving up open 3s the Rockets are missing (27.3 %) but Dort also doing a fine job on Harden. Help behind him, but still not allowing much penetration. OKC up 1.

Cliff Brunt @CliffBruntAP

OKC is much more aggressive today. More aggressive with drives, passes are quicker and made with more purpose. And the #Thunder aren't waiting until late in the shot clock to start putting the pressure on Houston's defense.

Oklahoma City's success stems in large part from a defense that was seventh in points allowed (108.4) and defensive efficiency (108.8). They ranked 16th in offensive efficiency (110.8) and 21st in points per game (110.4) during the regular season. 

Those offensive deficiencies were on display in the second half when the Thunder managed just 39 points over the final 24 minutes. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander accounted for 18 of those points, but the lack of a second option stymied the unit. 

Chris Paul had just 14 points on 15 field-goal attempts against Houston's switching defense. 

Tim MacMahon @espn_macmahon

Chris Paul finished the game a minus-36.

One key aspect of the Thunder's regular-season success was their performance in clutch situations. That hasn't translated to the postseason, leaving them with a lot more questions to figure out as they try to get back in the series. 


What's Next?

The Rockets and Thunder will play Game 3 on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN.