After the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-91 demolishing of the Houston Rockets in game 1, the Rockets look forward to proving that they can make the series competitive. After Sunday night’s blowout loss, James Harden looked at it in a positive light.
“Believe it or not, I think this was good for us,” Harden said after the loss. “Losing like this was definitely good for us. Now we know how to play.”
Now the Rockets know what adjustments they need to make. Here are my 5 guidelines that the Rockets must follow should they wish to steal Wednesday night’s game in OKC.
1. Movement Without the Ball
From the fourth quarter of the Rocket’s regular season finale against the Los Angeles Lakers, to all of game 1, the Rockets have not had good offensive continuity at all. Too many possessions has the ball become too “sticky” (a Kevin McHale phrase), with either Harden, Jeremy Lin, or Chandler Parsons trying to play 1-on-1 with the four other players standing and watching.
The Rockets became an offensive force this season through their ball movement, spacing, pick-and-rolls, and dribble penetration, and none of that showed in game 1. With the Thunder’s three perimeter defenders of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, and Kevin Durant able to switch off any of the three Rocket’s perimeter players, Houston must establish the high pick-and-roll game with either Omer Asik or Greg Smith as the roll man.
Both Asik and Smith had poor games Sunday night, and a crowded lane could be a cause for that. Too many times were the two stacked around the block at the same time, bringing Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins closer to the basket, which made it nearly impossible for the Rockets to penetrate the lane. Also, look for the perimeters to make more back-door cuts as the Thunder were very focused on not letting the perimeter players get off clean looks from three.
2. James Harden Must Score at Least 30 Points
The man who has carried the Rockets all season must continue to do so in the playoffs. Harden scored 20 points and only dished out 2 assists in game 1 on 6 for 19 shooting, and has struggled shooting from the field in the whole month of April. While the Thunder defense is focused on defending Harden, his jump shot has to start falling in game 2, as OKC will continue to try and clog the lane with Ibaka, Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet, Nick Collison, and at times, Durant.
In the Rockets lone win against the Thunder this season, Harden scored a career high 46 points, shooting 14 for 19 from the field, including 7 for 8 from behind the arc. Harden doesn’t have to match the point output, but he must be as efficient. The Rocket’s formula for success has been a pattern too all season: if Harden scores at least his season average of 25 points, and four or five other players score in double digits, the Rockets should have a chance in game 2, which leads me to:
3. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons Must Step Up
Both Lin and Parsons did not have impressive playoff debuts. Lin scored just four points, dished out four assists while committing four turnovers. He also shot 1 for 7 from the field. His defense on Westbrook was solid at times, but still allowed Westbrook to score 19 points, and dish out 10 assists.
Parsons, on the other hand, had a solid stretch in the second quarter of game 1, scoring five straight points at one point, but finished with just 9 points, including shooting 1 for 5 from behind the arc. Foul trouble was a problem for Parsons as well, as he picked up 3 fouls in the first half. If Harden can find lanes to penetrate, then both Lin and Parsons must be ready to knock down three pointers.
Both players didn’t play too bad defensively against their counterparts. Durant scored 24 points while Westbrook had 19, while going 7 for 15 shooting from the field each. If Parons and Lin can hold both players to under 50 percent shooting from the field each, the Rockets have a shot.
4. Terrence Jones and the Bench Must Outscore the Thunder Bench by At Least 10 Points
Scoring from reserves were pretty even in game 1, with the Thunder bench having the close edge, 44-43. Carlos Delfino and Patrick Beverly were the only other Rockets players to score in double digits aside from Harden, but the big emphasis off the bench is on rookie Terrence Jones. Jones was essentially the only big man to play rotation minutes in game 1 as Donatas Motiejunas struggled in the final weeks of the season.
Jones contributed on the boards, grabbing 8 rebounds, but he must be able to hold his ground against Ibaka, Perkins, and Collison, as Asik was in foul trouble in the first half of game 1. The Rockets need Jones in the game for size, so he must have a better game than he did Sunday night.
Delfino and Beverly must score in double digits again, along with Francisco Garcia, who scored 8 points in game 1. Look for Aaron Brooks to possibly get some minutes early in the game as well as part of a very small lineup.
5. Contain the Supporting Cast of the Thunder
Let’s face it, Durant and Westbrook will continue to do their thing in game 2, and there’s no stopping that. The Rockets must focus on taking away the role player’s productions. Ibaka scored 17 points, while Kevin Martin scored 16 points off the bench. Both Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson scored 9 points each. The Thunder shot over 53 percent from the field as a team in game 1, while Durant and Westbrook shot under 50 percent each.
I would much rather see both Durant and Westbrook scoring 30 points each with no other double digit scorer, than holding the two to under 20 points and getting contributions from the role players. Durant and Westbrook put up 15 shots each in game 1, which means the rest of the Thunder players got their fair share of field goal attempts.
Ibaka attempted 11 shots while Martin put up 15 shots as well. Focusing on limiting the secondary players’ shot attempts will give Durant and Westbrook more shots, hopefully more contested shots. The strategy is try to get Westbrook to take more shots than Durant does, because we all know that at times, Westbrook’s toughest opponent can be himself at times.