James Harden, Rockets Scrape by Thunder but Face Tougher Test in LA Lakers

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2020

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) celebrates after blocking a 3-point shot attempt by Oklahoma City Thunder's Luguentz Dort (5) during the second half of an NBA first-round playoff basketball game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press

In the pantheon of all-time NBA playoff moments, Game 7 between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder probably won't much matter. For now, on the heels of complete and utter crunch-time chaos, it is the kind of frantic, flustered moment you cannot imagine forgetting. 

Put another way: What. Did. We. Just. Watch. 

No one should have a concrete answer. Consequences get committed to memory, and even after Houston eked out a 104-102 victory Wednesday night, the stakes assigned to this series, for both sides, aren't quite clear.

Were the Rockets competing for the right to sidestep calls to blow it up? Were the Thunder scrapping and clawing for a better shot at keeping this core together, ahead of an offseason that will see Danilo Gallinari enter free agency and, invariably, onslaughts of Chris Paul trade speculation?

Is winning a first-round series even worth that much, to either team? Or was this merely an opportunity to get a crack at the Los Angeles Lakers in the semifinals and go from there? 

Whatever the incentives, beyond the obvious, they belong to the Rockets. They survived. It wasn't pretty, or decisive, or even necessarily impressive, but they're taking micro-ball to the second round.

The method of transportation they used to get there is absolute anarchy. Game 7 was action-packed, not to mention riveting, but not exactly logical.

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James Harden shot 4-of-15 from the floor, including just 1-of-9 from three and a handful of truly bad misses. Chris Paul attempted only 11 shots, his lowest total of the series. PJ Tucker couldn't buy a three (1-of-7) but the so-far-freezing-cold Eric Gordon purchased extra (5-of-9). 

Danilo Gallinari was, pardon my Italian, un mucchio fumante di terribile (2-of-6 from the floor). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dropped 19 points on a 6-of-11 clip, but it felt like he vanished entirely, save for a ginormously important corner three down the stretch. Russell Westbrook kept his turnovers in check (two) and shot 3-of-6 on twos outside the paint, but he dished just two assists and was a question-mark finisher inside the restricted area (6-of-12). Robert Covington led the Rockets in scoring (21 points), along with Gordon.

Oh, yeah, and then there's Luguentz Dort. After going 7-of-38 (18.4 percent) from long distance through the first six games, he naturally dropped a game-high 30 points, put in six of his 12 triples and joined the company of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James:

The ending befit the aforementioned wackiness. It had everything you need...to relitigate the outcome. 

CP3 had the ball inside 15 seconds to play with the Thunder down one. He passed it to Gilgeous-Alexander, who scooped it up after it was deflected by Westbrook. He then passed to...Dort...who went up for a potentially series-winning three....which was...blocked by noted awesome defensive specialist Harden, who had three swats on the night:

Oklahoma City still had a chance to tie or win after Covington went 1-of-2 at the free-throw line. And then an off-ball foul was called as SGA tried to inbound the ball with 1.1 seconds left. Or wait, did the Thunder actually call timeout? It took the refs a few minutes and many Chris Paul struggle faces to decide. 

(Aside: Lost amid all this, Steven Adams might've had a clear path to finishing a lob if Oklahoma City inbounded the ball.)

Eventually, Harden was called for the foul. Given the option to send anyone to the charity stripe for one shot, head coach Billy Donovan chose...Gallinari. That makes sense, because, after all, it's not like the Thunder have Chris Paul, who most definitely didn't hit 88.5 percent of his free throws (23-of-26) for the series. 

Anyway, Gallinari missed. Sure, he was a perfect 29-of-29 on freebies to that point. But it turns out the Thunder do have Chris Paul, their resident crunch-time superhero. So, yeah.

Houston then went on to bust up Oklahoma City's final inbounds play. Gilgeous-Alexander was left trying to force the ball to Adams just inside the arc. The ball was knocked away, not that it mattered. Adams isn't an imminent threat from that far out.

Afterward, Paul was also left to bemoan a delay of game call levied by official Scott Foster:

The Rockets, meanwhile, began their latest "James Harden is underrated on defense campaign: 

So what did we just watch? Pure, unqualified, unhinged madness.

And now, for the Rockets, it's on to the Lakers, who will have played their last game almost a week ago when they tip off Friday night. That doesn't give Houston much time to bask in the afterglow of this victory, insofar as it even wants to. 

Winning this series is more of a close call than success story. The Thunder are a genuinely good team, but the Rockets, experimental as they may be, weren't assembled to put up resistance in the first round. They were built with the intent of contending for a championship. This series didn't do much to prop up that sentiment. It feels more like Houston evaded disaster.

Yes, in some ways, the Rockets could be a nightmare matchup for the Lakers. Their no-bigs model runs completely counter to L.A.'s dual-big lineups, paving the way for a bunch of mismatches. Then again, forcing the Lakers to play Anthony Davis at center for longer stretches actually does them favor.

What are the Rockets?
What are the Rockets?Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Houston's three-point volume should at least amount to a clear advantage. That style is high-variance, but so is Los Angeles' supporting cast.

Reliable shot creation is tough to come by after LeBron James, and the roster in general is neither built to launch a ton of treys nor hit them at a consistently above-average clip. The Rockets are averaging six long-range makes per 48 minutes more than the Lakers during the playoffs, and they were a plus-4.5 conversions per 48 minutes from beyond the arc in the regular season.

Still, that means only so much if Houston's two stars aren't at or near the top of their games. Harden is now shooting 32.8 percent from downtown in the playoffs for his career and has been even worse during the fourth quarter and overtime over the past five postseasons, dipping below 25 percent, as The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor noted. Westbrook is the consummate wild card, a relentless force of nature who has sniffed the best version of himself since the team pivoted away from playing a true center but can also break his team down the stretch with inexplicable decision-making.

This is all to say, the Rockets didn't learn too much about themselves against the Thunder. Their defense outperforming the offense is bizarre, but in the aggregate, their range of postseason outcomes remains the same: from legitimate title threats to paper tigers, plus everything and anything in between.

     

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.