3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Thunder -1.5, Over/Under: 224
After a blowout in Game One, this series between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder has turned into a heavyweight fight between MVP candidates, as the latter look to square things away at two games apiece tonight in Game Four from Chesapeake Energy Arena. In hammering their counterpart by thirty-one points in the Series Opener, the Rockets (55-27, 3rd in Western Conference) couldn’t have thought that things would be that easy moving forward, which turned out to be the case in the ensuing two contests. In Game Two, they trailed for the larger part of four quarters, before finally taking the lead midway through the final stanza en route to a 115-111 victory. At one point during Friday Night’s 115-113 defeat it looked as if they would turn the same trick twice; falling behind 34-25 after the First Quarter, Houston would eventually go on to tie the score at 111 apiece with just fifty-two seconds on the clock courtesy of a James Harden three-pointer. However, that was a close as they would get, as Harden (29.1 PTS, 44.0% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 11.2 AST, 1.5 STL) missed a pair of late threes (including the potential game-winner) in the waning minutes as the visiting side saw their lead in the series cut in half. On the night, Mike D’Antoni’s charges shot just 45.8% from the field, including a dismal 10-of-35 from downtown (28.6%), and in arguably the most glaring stat of the Postseason, managed to dish out a scant ten assists. To give you an idea of just how perplexing that figure is, Harden alone led the NBA in that particular category, averaging 11.2 dimes per game. On that night though, despite scoring a game-high forty-four points on 11-of-21 shooting (52.4%), including 4-of-12 from three (33.3%), he would rack up more turnovers (seven) than helpers (six), as his team totaled sixteen turnovers, which turned into twenty-five points for the hosts. Lou Williams (14.9 PTS, 38.6% FG, 31.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.7 STL) added twenty-two points off the Bench on 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%), including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (75.0%), while Ryan Anderson (13.6 PTs, 41.9% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 0.9 AST) and Eric Gordon (16.2 PTS, 40.6% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.5 AST) posted eighteen and twelve respectively, but at the end of the night too many of their supporting cast fizzled; Trevor Ariza (11.7 PTS, 40.8% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.8 STL) had just seven points, while Patrick Beverley (9.5 PTS, 41.9% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 4.2 AST 1.5 STL), who scored a career-high twenty-one in Game One, could muster just one point on 0-for-6 shooting from the field before fouling out. And with that said, it was almost enough to take a commanding three-game lead. At some point in this series, the Rockets are going to have to start knocking down three-pointers more efficiently, for the Thunder have done a masterful job of pressing out to the perimeter. During the Regular Season, Houston set an NBA record for most three-pointers made (1,181) and attempted (3,306), but through the first three games of this series they have been largely ineffective from long-range, knocking down just thirty-one of their ninety-seven attempts (32.0%), which represents a steep departure from the 35.7% they netted throughout the campaign. Granted, it’s usually a case of quantity over quality for these guys when it comes to the money ball, but they need to start making more of them in order to best their fiery counterparts to the north.
Meanwhile, this is the Thunder (47-35, 6th in Western Conference) we’ve been clamoring to see. After getting embarrassed in Game One, and letting one get away in Game Two, Oklahoma City finally decided that the only way that they’re going to dig themselves out of their two-game hole, is by doing it as a team. Yes, it’s easy to get lost in Russell Westbrook’s (31.6 PTS, 42.5% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 10.7 REB, 10.4 AST, 1.6 STL) heroics these days, particularly when the guy broke a record that has stood since 1962, amassing a staggering forty-two Triple-Doubles, while joining Oscar Robertson as the only player in NBA History to average one throughout the course of a season. As you can imagine, his teammates can oftentimes be found guilty of just falling into the background watching him do his thing. How else can you explain the fact that this team went 33-9 when the six-time All-Star posted a trifecta in comparison to going just 13-26 when failed to do so? Then again, Westbrook reached that threshold in each of the last two games of this series, with each featuring a different outcome. In Game Two, the MVP frontrunner put together the league’s first-ever fifty-point Triple-Double, scoring fifty-one points on 17-of-43 shooting from the field (39.5%), including a poor 2-of-11 from downtown (18.2%), along with ten rebounds, thirteen assists, four steals, and even a block, but his supporting cast was hard to find, accounting for sixty points on 42.6% shooting, including 5-of-19 from three (26.3%), and seven assists. Simply put, Billy Donovan and his Staff need more from the likes of Victor Oladipo (eleven points), Enes Kanter (four points), and Steven Adams (five points), who have been counted on to help fill the void left by the departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka last Summer. Then Game Three happened… With Westbrook accumulating yet another Triple-Double (thirty-two points, thirteen rebounds, and eleven assists), it was the Supporting Cast that made all the difference this time, as they rose to the occasion in front of the home crowd, scoring eight-three points on a much-improved 59.3% shooting from the field, including 9-of-18 from three-point land (50.0%). The aforementioned Oladipo (15.9 PTS, 44.2% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.2 STL) posted his best performance of the Playoffs, adding twelve points on 5-of-8 shooting (62.5%), including 2-of-3 from deep (66.7%), along with six rebounds, and a pair of assists and steals, while Taj Gibson (9.0 PTS, 49.7% FG, 4.5 REB), whom they acquired at the trade Deadline from Chicago went nuts with twenty points on 10-of-13 shooting (76.9%). For the first time in these Playoffs, Oklahoma City played as one, assisting on twenty-four of their forty-six field goals, which led to a much higher percentage night from the field (55.4%), while shredding Houston in the open court (Plus-15 points in Fast Break Points), and managing to hold their own in the Paint (Minus-2). Simply put, this is exactly how this team needs to play in order to be successful. While they don’t have the most imposing collection of players apart Westbrook by any means, they have the potential of being so much more than the league’s leading scorer and a bunch of also-rans.