So you liked seven seconds or less in the Valley of the Sun, huh?
How about four seconds or less in Houston?
Against the Thunder on Friday night, the Rockets took Phoenix’s patented high-octane, fast-breaking offense and turned up the tempo even more in their 105-94 win over Oklahoma City at the Toyota Center. On the Thunder’s makes, misses and turnovers, Houston routinely ran up the court and had a shot up before five seconds had ticked off the shot clock.
The Thunder never looked interested in getting back and, even though OKC was well within striking distance of the Rockets’ five-point halftime lead, the writing was on the wall as the two teams headed for their locker rooms. By then it was clear that if the Thunder didn’t focus on getting back the contest would quickly turn into a blowout. And that’s about what happened — even if the scoreboard read the Thunder was within eight inside the final two minutes.
This game was not as close as even the final 11-point margin indicated.
A smaller, less athletic Rockets team bullied the flat-footed Thunder. In the paint (54-44 paint points) and in transition (22-10 fast break points). Houston, with a 6-foot-6 inch starting center in Chuck Hayes, even had more blocked shots (10) than the Thunder (eight). The Rockets’ 6-foot backup point guard Kyle Lowry was credited for four blocks.
Credit Lowry, and starter Aaron Brooks, for pushing the pace, too, and making things uncomfortable for the Thunder all night. Lowry had eight assists in 20 minutes off the bench. Brooks had six. The Thunder had just 15 as a team. Most of their dishes were the result of run outs or breakdowns in the Thunder’s defense in the halfcourt.
“They just played much tougher than we did tonight,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
It’s not like the Thunder didn’t know what type of game Friday night’s would be. Oklahoma City got a sneak peak of this same Rockets squad in the third-to-last game of its preseason schedule. And Brooks knew full well what to expect after walking out of Houston the first time following a 20-point loss.
“We know they’re fast,” Brooks told me following Thursday’s practice. “After leaving that (preseason) game in Houston, I came away knowing that that’s a fast team that knows how to pass the basketball. And we have to do a better job of containing the ball and creating some difficult passing lanes for their little guards.”
The Thunder fell to 2-3, its third straight defeat, because it failed to adhere to the scouting report.
It didn’t help that the Thunder’s offensive rhythm was nearly as out of sync as its defensive principles. Only Russell Westbrook (game-high 33 points) and Kevin Durant (27 points) finished in double-digit scoring. Together, their 25 of 47 shooting helped the Thunder shoot a respectable 43.5 percent. The other three starters shot a combined 6-for-27.
The Thunder had as many assists (15) as turnovers, and over its past three games has now tallied 44 assists to 55 turnovers, a sign of just how much the team has struggled offensively of late.
“We’re about team basketball,” Brooks said. “We all have to play together as a team…We have to regroup and refocus our effort. Our identity is we have to defend. We have to score off of our defense and tonight we did not do that. We were taking the ball out of the basket throughout the game.”
- The Thunder forced the Rockets into a shot clock violation on their first possession. It was an early stance that made you think the Thunder would put together a quality 48 minutes of defensive intensity. If you thought that like me, needless to say you were wrong.
- Jeff Green was whistled for two fouls less than a minute into the game. And Brooks surprisingly left him in. It didn’t matter because Green was never able to get into a rhythm from that point on. He struggled offensively, going 3-for-15 from the field and 0-for-4 from deep, and, because he had to play with caution, Luis Scola ate him up on the other end, finishing with 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting with 10 rebounds and three assists. Rough game for Green.
- James Harden got another lesson on the defensive end tonight, this time by fellow rookie and former college rival Chase Budinger. Harden fell for two Budinger pump fakes with 1:44 left in the first quarter, leaving his feet both times. After the second fake, Budinger buried a 20-footer. Then, with about 45 seconds remaining, Harden fell asleep while Budinger made a hard cut to the basket off a screen. Budinger caught the pass on his way to the hoop and got fouled at the rim to get a trip to the line for two free throws.
- Budinger surprisingly had his way with, not just Harden, but the entire Thunder team. He finished with 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting in 22 minutes off the bench.
- Kevin Durant’s one assists doesn’t tell the whole story of how much he tried to be a facilitator tonight, especially early. He often made the extra pass and took shots only when wide open, in transition or curling off a screen. In addition to his nine rebounds, three steals and one block, I’d say he played a pretty good floor game.
- Shaun Livingston made his season debut early in the second quarter, checking in for Kevin Durant and playing off the ball while Kevin Ollie manned the point position.Brooks went with a three-guard lineup of Ollie, Livingston and Harden at one point, then Westbrook, Livingston and Harden. Livingston had just two points and one assist in five minutes. But in his limited minutes he made it a point to weave his way into the paint and create something. A positive first showing.
- D.J. White got some burn for the first time this season. He pulled down one rebound, committed three fouls and missed two shot attempts in his 10 minutes. Said White, “It felt good. I’m just getting my feet wet for my first action of the year. I think I did some things OK. It’s still some things I still need to work on. I’m just happy I finally got a chance to get on the court…You always got to be ready when you’re number is called. You never know. I didn’t know, but I came in and I just tried to be a presence on the defensive end.”
- White’s opportunity came at the expense of Etan Thomas, who played just 12 minutes after turning in his best performance of the season Tuesday against the Lakers. Fans and media always want to see the guy who’s not playing as opposed to the guy who is (although Serge Ibaka might have been the preference). But Brooks gave you a glimpse against the Rockets (I have no idea why) and, no disrespect to White, it proved that the grass isn’t always greener.
- The defensive player of the game award goes to Nick Collison, the only player who got extended minutes and appeared remotely interested in showing some form of resistance. Collison was his usual steady self, finishing with nine points, eight boards, two blocks and a steal in 22 minutes.
- The Thunder franchise has not lost 11 straight games against Houston.
THEY SAID IT
- Shane Battier on Kevin Durant: “He is improving rapidly. He is going to be a great player in this league. He is going to be one of the elite players in this league. He gets better every single year and his physical tools are undeniable. The guy is 7-feet tall coming off screens and shooting it like Ray Allen, and he is still a really young player. Once he really figures out what this league is about, and he will, he is going to be a nightmare match up for anyone guarding him.”
- Durant on the key to the game: “They pulled away in the third quarter and they were hitting their shots. They were more aggressive than we were and that is what wins games.”
- Russell Westbrook on the key to the game: “Too many easy baskets and a lot of transition points.”
- James Harden on the team’s defense: “It was just a couple of breakdowns. Things that we can change. Nothing major. Just some little minor adjustments that we need to get back to when practice starts. But other than that we’ll be fine.”
- Harden on taking charges the last two games: “I’m just learning the game. Being out there a lot more helps me learn the game and learn how different players play the game. And just being aggressive on the defensive end and taking those charges is something that I’m willing to do and have to learn how to do.”
BY THE NUMBERS
3: Straight losses by the Thunder after a 2-0 start.
4: Blocked shots by Rockets 6-foot point guard Kyle Lowry, a career-high.
21: Points by Rockets forward Carl Landry off the bench, tying the Thunder’s total bench points.
22: Fast break points for Houston.
33: Points for Russell Westbrook, one shy of his career-high.
53.8: Percent shooting by Houston.
105: Points allowed by the Thunder, a season-high.
14,911: Attendance at the Toyota Center.