After four nerve-wracking contests (two wins, two losses) that almost broke their collective will, the Oklahoma City Thunder put together a solid enough effort to finally dispose of the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets. The West’s top seed pulled away thanks to two related factors.
Defense Decides: In the first quarter, the Thunder gave up at least seven points with indecisive or too-slow rotations. Kendrick Perkins symbolized the subpar effort with his half-hearted switch/retreat that gave Harden a clean three-point look off a high pick-and-roll.
In the second quarter, Oklahoma City came out clearly determined to moving their feet and staying active on defense. The openings slid shut for the Rockets, who still went 8-17 from the field in the quarter, but needed several off-balance makes to get there. The Thunder defense was even more important than Kevin Martin’s revelatory scoring outburst (3-6 field goals, 12 points in the quarter) in giving the visitors a four-point lead at halftime.
Then the Thunder opened the second half by falling right back into poor defensive habits and digging themselves a 10-point hole. Chandler Parsons’ shooting (3-4 threes in the quarter) was a slight aberration, but allowing Harden to repeatedly beat his man off the dribble was inexcusable.
By quarter’s end, the Thunder righted the ship and kept the defensive pressure up until they seized control midway through the fourth. Making a commitment to activity on defense exposed the Rockets’ lack of firepower. Forced to make difficult shots, every Houston player outside of Harden and (briefly) Parsons wilted.
The perception that Oklahoma City’s offense was in trouble did not really jibe with reality. Once they tightened up their defense, points flowed far more freely. During the 7-0 run that jump-started the fourth quarter and extended the Thunder lead from one to seven, the visitors forced two turnovers and allowed no better looks than contested three-point tries by Houston’s secondary players.
Collison Course: The Thunder tellingly found their rhythm on both ends when coach Scott Brooks made the series’ crucial lineup decision: burying the ineffective Kendrick Perkins and his alleged defensive expertise on the bench, and finally unleashing Nick Collison.
Brooks’ best low-post defender (yes, better than Perkins or Serge Ibaka) made the most of his 22 minutes, by far the most he’d played in the first round. He was relentless energy in motion, zooming around the court to protect his territory and even displaying some near-telepathic two-man play with Kevin Martin.
It may be a coincidence that Martin’s best game of the playoffs (25 points, 7-13 FG, 8-8 FT) came when Collison got his big chance, but Brooks would be wise to stick with both of them against their next opponent: a Memphis team that specializes in forcing secondary players to step up.
Collison also represents his team’s best chance at containing Zach Randolph, who dominated Perkins and Ibaka when the teams met in the 2011 postseason. If Collison can make Randolph work for his points, the rest of the Thunder should be able to replicate some of tonight’s peak defensive intensity.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.