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Houston Rockets Bench Outplaying OKC’s at Every Turn

Apr 19, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) handles the ball while Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kyle Singler (15) defends during the fourth quarter in game two of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 19, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) handles the ball while Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kyle Singler (15) defends during the fourth quarter in game two of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
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There have been lots of ups and downs in the matchup between the Houston Rockets and the OKC Thunder, but one thing has been consistent throughout: Houston’s bench production.

By a lot of measures, the first round should already be over for the Houston Rockets. They’re up 3-1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but haven’t even played great basketball thus far in the playoffs. Had they been performing at their ultimate capacity, they’d be resting up for round two by now.

Instead of coming out looking sharp, Houston’s starters have dug themselves into a hole to begin every game so far. Even the game one blowout was technically a come-from-behind ordeal. Collectively, the team shot better than 32% from three in just one of the four games so far, and accrued 10 more turnovers than OKC in games two, three, and four combined.

These consistently poor starts for the Rockets have put pressure on the bench unit to mount comebacks. Luckily for Red Nation, they’ve responded well to that pressure. Not counting garbage time in game one, Mike D’Antoni‘s gone with a tight, eight-man rotation so far in the playoffs. The bench unit of Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and Nene has been wildly effective, giving the Rockets opportunities to win each game.

The first game of the series was a blowout so it doesn’t carry as much weight, but Houston’s bench was a combined +44 in their time on-court compared to OKC’s bench being a collective -59.

Game two was decided by just four points, but the Rockets’ reserves dominated the Thunder’s: +41 for Houston compared to a heinous -64 for OKC. Gordon and Williams combined for 43 points that game to make up for Ryan Anderson‘s four-point performance.

The Rockets lost game three by two points, but their reserves deserve no blame. They outplayed their opponent’s bench, +17 to -6. Sweet Lou poured in 22 points on an efficient 9/15 shooting display.

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After averaging over 38 points per game in the first three contests, James Harden struggled in game four. He was able to score only 16 points, but Houston won despite him with Nene’s dominance. The Brazilian poured in 28 points while shooting 100% from the field, and yanked down 10 boards as well.

Behind that, plus E.G. and Lou combining for 36 points, the Rockets’ bench finished at a combined +52 for the night, compared to the Thunder’s second group at -40.

Usually, I don’t like using box +/- to determine a player’s value because it inherently involves other players. For example, with only eight men seeing the court for Houston, at least two starters are checked in at all times. It’s impossible, in theory, to prove whether or not the bench’s production is really to their credit.

However, when Houston’s reserves are a combined +154 for the first four games, it’s worth noticing. Fans who advocate Westbrook for MVP argue that his supporting cast isn’t as good as Harden’s, and to an extent they’re right. OKC’s starters have largely outplayed Houston’s during the playoffs so far, but their bench just can’t keep up.

With the Rockets boasting two of the leading Sixth Man of the Year candidates, good bench production is expected. It’s nice to have that cushion in place for when the first group doesn’t get off to a good start. If Houston makes the deep playoff run they’re capable of making, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Nene deserve quite a bit of credit.

Next: Houston's cap situation for 2017 free agency

The Houston Rockets play game five on Tuesday at the Toyota Center. They’ll want to close things out quickly, and D’Antoni’s bench unit will be ready for the challenge.

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