After playing soft for most of the game and allowing the underdog opponent to dominate the offensive glass and create a late lead, the Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed a hold of themselves at just the right time, as Kevin Durant, aided by some big shots from Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, managed to steer the ship in the right direction and get themselves a 2-0 lead.
During the regular season, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined to score 77.6% of the Thunder’s points during crunch time (5 minutes and less, 5 points or less of margin to one of the teams). This time, OKC scored 14 points on 4-7 from the field during the closing minutes, with 5 different players getting on the scoreboard, and Sefolosha and Ibaka hitting the biggest shots of all.
The Rockets were a nuisance, no doubt about it, but ended up folding in a 105-102 loss, going back to Houston with a very tough task at hand, not to mention the injury to Jeremy Lin. James Harden was just as ineffective in his selfishness this time, finishing with 9-24 from the field, but he did manage to get six assists and involve his teammates in more than last time, including a 21-2 run in the fourth quarter that led the Rockets to a four point lead (95-91) with 3:27 remaining.
The Thunder were rattled this time. The small-ball and more nasty approach from the Rockets got to them. Patrick Beverly is very raw in his talent, but he got under Russell Westrbook’s skin with his offense and with his knee to Westbrook’s own. Still, the Thudner’s point guard finished with 29 points, just like Kevin Durant, despite the two combining for a very bad 20-51 and shooting 3-16 from beyond the arc.
What’s been helpful for the Thunder against an improved defensive effort from the Rockets was Durtant spreading the ball, dishing out 9 assists while Westrbook didn’t have to worry about things he didn’t like to do. It ended up being big in the final minutes – Thabo Sefolosha came up with two huge stops after the Thunder regained the lead through Durant, and he and Ibaka (12 points, 11 rebounds, 6 blocks) killed the game off in the remaining seconds.
The Thunder lost the rebounding battle by 17, allowing 18 offensive boards by the Rockets. Despite that, their ability to make the most of the transition game, outscoring the Rockets 21-10 in transition might have been the statistical difference when you try to find a reason for the win that goes beyond the simplistic fact of “making the right plays, at the right time.”
Some say there are no moral victories in the postseason, but the Rockets might have ended up with one. On the other hand, the Thunder played pretty bad basketball for most of the game, but couldn’t lose, wouldn’t lose, because of the talent they have that kept them alive in the final minutes despite certain struggles. Going into Houston, it’s not going to be really easy to keep the same level of dominance, but at least they know that even while playing badly they’ve got the player who might not be the best in the NBA, but is good enough to pull them through.