The Thunder and Rockets delivered a game two last night that outweighed their first matchup in virtually every category. We got a real showing of the top two MVP candidates in a tight game that, depending on who your rooting interests were vested in, either went great or poorly up until the final quarter of play. But what I found most interesting about the game was how complete of a performance both Russell Westbrook and James Harden put together. Not necessarily in terms of stats alone, but rather in showing both why they should and shouldn’t be the choice for league MVP.
Russ went berserk for three quarters…
For the first three quarters of play, Russ looked like he was single-handedly going to make this whole series exciting. At the end of the third frame, he had shot 13-25 from the field, and was almost the sole reason for the Thunder clinging to three-point lead. I say clinging because despite OKC leading by double digits at one point, the Rockets went on big runs whenever Westbrook wasn’t on the floor, including one at the end of the third that made it a one possession game. However, because of his performance in the first three quarters when he put up 36 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds, and 3 steals, a lot of people expected him to close the game out for Thunder.
I know there's a lot of time left but Westbrook is threatening to put together one of the all-time playoff games. Amazing even for him.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 20, 2017
…and then the fourth quarter happened.
Westbrook came into the final frame shooting 13-25 from the field. When the game had ended, he had shot 17-43. Woof.
The Thunder offense, as a whole, looked totally discombobulated and lacking any direction. Russ looked tired, both driving to the rim, and shooting from long-range. A lot of his shots weren’t even close to falling, and even most of his passes looked sloppy and rushed. It seemed as if the man with the impossible motor, who had chased down a record thought impossible in the modern era of the NBA, was finally running on fumes.
It’s easy to look at the disparity of Westbrook’s stat-line and pass it off as the typical hero ball offense (especially if you saw his shot selection in the fourth quarter) that’s made him loved and hated in equal measure. But that is only half true, and choosing that argument alone likely just means you have more rooting interest in Harden and/or the Rockets. To understand Russ’s play at the end of the game in its full context, you have to understand the rest of the Thunders’ play when Westbrook was on the bench.
Put bluntly, the Thunder got smoked for the seven minutes Westbrook didn’t play. I mentioned earlier that the Rockets went on several scoring runs the few times Russ sat, and the Thunder’s ineffectiveness to run any sort of workable offense without him on the floor laid the groundwork for a huge shot volume from Westbrook in the final frame. Not to mention that Westbrook having to single-handedly win games for OKC has been a somewhat common occurrence this season anyway. (See Dallas, Orlando, Denver, etc.) It’s easy for those against Westbrook to say that he should have gotten either teammates involved and taken less shots, but that argument holds little relevance when considering that no other Thunder player outside of Doug McDermott looked particularly good. His teammates’ play while he sat gave Westbrook little reason to trust them when he was back on the court. (For example, Victor Oladipo, widely considered the second option to Westbrook, shot 1-7 from three.) Performances like these were nothing new to this Thunder team based on their regular season.
Harden played exactly how those who love and hate him expected.
For his part, Harden didn’t exactly put up offensive fireworks either. He shot 7 for 17 from the field, but managed 35 points to go with 8 assists, thanks in part to shooting a staggering 20 free throws throughout the game. From an efficiency standpoint, it was hardly a standout performance from the Beard, who had almost as many turnovers (7) as assists. But his ability to get to, and score from, the charity stripe is among the best in the league, and was on full display in game two. The free throw disparity between the two teams wasn’t egregious (the Thunder shot from the line 28 times), but Harden accounted for 20 of his teams 37 free throws and made 18 of them, meaning they accounted for just over half of his points.
This style of play is also the reason for a person’s love or hate of Harden as well; while many praise his ability to get to the line and score, even on a bad shooting night, while tallying assists and getting his teammates involved, relying on officiating and free points has angered others in equal measure. But one thing that those who dislike Harden’s style of play can’t argue with is its effectiveness. The Rockets had the third best regular season record this year, lead the Thunder two games to none, and almost all of that is to do with Harden and his play, whether you like it or not. And that level of success speaks volumes.
The intangibles favored Harden this time around.
A big reason in the Rockets pulling out a win was the play of each team’s role players. I mentioned earlier how badly the Thunder got outplayed when Russ wasn’t on the floor, but the Rockets inversely excelled when Harden sat. Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and Patrick Beverly all put together strong performances in their own right, and Beverly scored big bucket after big bucket in the final quarter to help give the Rockets a two-game advantage in the series. With Harden not shooting particularly well in this game, he could instead look to create opportunities for his teammates, something Westbrook couldn’t reasonably do late in the game. (While Oladipo struggled from deep, Beverly and Williams shot 2-4 and 3-4 from behind the arc, respectively.)
The big factor for the Rockets ability to score easy buckets inside late was Steven Adams sitting for a large portion of the fourth quarter with five fouls, opening up the lane for easy floaters from Beverly and lay-ins from Harden. While those two also had five fouls for a decent amount of the fourth, both were smart while defending, and none of the Thunder was able to punish them offensively by being overly aggressive and getting them fouled out of the game.
Another reason for the big final quarter from Houston was the Rockets’ high-volume shooting style of offense. When Houston shoots at a high percentage like they did in the fourth quarter last night, it also limits the opposing team’s fast break opportunities. Oklahoma City is dependent on Russ kickstarting fast breaks to create easy offense. The Thunder were forced into more half court sets that they struggle with in the fourth, which made keeping up with the Rockets’ shooting down the stretch even more difficult.
Ultimately, as far as the MVP race is concerned, none of this even matters.
MVP ballots have already been turned in, and early indications are that it’s going to be Westbrook. This obviously isn’t sitting well with Rockets fans, who have got to be happy with the way this series, and specifically the end of last night’s game played out. But no matter how many fourth quarter shots Russ takes and misses, it isn’t going to affect the MVP voting. If anything, it will simply make the NBA look bad for presenting the award after the playoffs if Harden wildly outplays Westbrook for the rest of the series and the Rockets win in four or five games.
But while this series doesn’t have any implications on the MVP race, it does give us a chance to view the top MVP candidates against each other, playing exactly how they have all season to be in the discussion. At the very least, it will fuel one scorned fan base’s anger while arguing why their player was robbed throughout the rest of time.