In the entire history of the NBA playoffs, no team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. Thats what will be on the line Saturday, when Oklahoma City tries to avoid falling into that predicament in Game 3 of their first-round series versus Houston.
During a 123-108 victory in Tuesdays Game 1 (box score), the Rockets were fueled by James Harden (37 points, 55% FG), Jeff Green (22 points, 67% FG), and a dynamic offense. In the 111-98 win in Thursdays Game 2 (box score), however, there wasnt nearly as much individual dominance on offense. No player exceeded 21 points, as Harden and Eric Gordon combined to shoot just 2-of-21 on 3-pointers (9.5%).
But the Rockets more than made up for that offensive decline thanks to a suffocating defense, which held the Thunder to just 39 points in the second half. After trailing by six at halftime, Houston took control with a 16-2 run over seven-plus minutes to start the second half, and then a 20-2 run over a similar span late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.
“If we hold each other accountable and everybody does what theyre supposed to, our defense can be the best in the NBA,” said veteran leader and defensive ace P.J. Tucker. “Everybody always talks about how small we are, but weve got to make that our strength.”
“Getting under people and being aggressive, if we do that, then people cant run their plays, and they cant score,” said Tucker, who also made all four of his 3-pointers, including a dagger in the final two minutes.
Through two games, the Rockets are the only team with a 2-0 series edge in the Western Conference playoffs. They have the No. 2 net rating among all NBA playoff teams, trailing only Boston by a narrow margin.
And from Houstons perspective, its possible they could get even better. Just imagine, for example, if they could combine the shooting from Game 1 with the stifling, switch-heavy defense seen in Game 2.
“When were making shots, our swag is way crazier,” Harden said. “But I think our swag is even better when were not, because weve got to guard and defend, and be on the same page defensively. Our attention is going to be even more when we arent making shots.”
Harden and the Rockets could also get even better once fellow All-Star guard Russell Westbrook returns from a right quad strain, though that seems unlikely to happen Saturday. While an earlier report indicated that Westbrook could return as soon as this weekend, theres no reason for Houston to rush his recovery with a 2-0 cushion in the series.
“I mean, if youre down 0-2, that puts you in a different position than 2-0,” head coach Mike DAntoni said after Thursdays game. ” But were going to be careful with Russ, hes too valuable to throw out there no matter what the situation is. Hes going to be well, and we cant wait to get him back. Were gonna be careful with it.”
For the Thunder, any potential to flip the script could depend on whether theyre capable of having all of their offensive weapons clicking at the same time. In Game 1, Danilo Gallinari and Chris Paul combined for 49 points and 12 assists, with each shooting 50% or better from the field — but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored just nine points (25% FG).
In Game 2, Gilgeous-Alexander was terrific with 31 points on 53% shooting, but Gallinari and Paul combined for just 31 points and three assists, with each shooting below 42% overall. Paul, an All-Star point guard, registered a -36 in the plus/minus over his 37 minutes.
Against Houstons suddenly stingy defense and a bevy of versatile defenders such as Harden, Tucker, Gordon, Green, Danuel House Jr., Austin Rivers, and Robert Covington, it remains to be seen if OKC is capable of getting all of its top scoring options going at the same time. If they arent, they may not have the firepower to keep up with the Rockets — who combined to make 39 3-pointers over the first two games.
Theres also the conundrum of what to do with rookie guard Luguentz Dort, who missed Game 1 with a knee injury. A dynamic defender, Dort returned in Game 2 and played a key role in limiting Harden, the NBAs scoring champion and an MVP finalist, to just 5-of-16 shooting (31.3%). Thats no small feat. Yet, his struggles as a shooter (30% overall, 25% on 3-pointers) cost the Thunder on offense, where the Rockets often left Dort unguarded and were able to focus more resources on the scorers.
Game 3 between the Rockets and Thunder tips off at 5:00 p.m. Central on Saturday, with a national broadcast on ESPN and a regional version (with Houston announcers) on AT&T SportsNet Southwest. Both networks will have streaming options available on their mobile apps.