To understand how effective the Thunder's defense was against Houston in Game 1, you must first examine the performance of James Harden.
There isn't a single indicator of the team's success quite as revealing as how the Thunder shut down its former sixth man.
In its 120-91 win Sunday, the Thunder held Harden to 20 points on 19 shots. Those numbers alone are sufficient in showing how much he struggled. But closer inspection makes it impossible to not credit Oklahoma City's defense for hounding Harden into such a below average night.
Just look at how Harden scored.
In half-court sets, Harden was 2-for-15. Where he did most of his damage was in transition, where he was 4-for-4.
For a player who was widely viewed as the Thunder's best ballhandler and most effective creator in half-court sets, Harden's inability to shine in half-court sets served as a microcosm of how stingy OKC's defense was throughout the night.
“They have players that are dynamic and an offensive team that can score points in bundles,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of the Rockets. “So we have to really be on point with all of our defensive core values and I thought we did that (Sunday) night very well.
“We didn't allow them a lot of easy shots and that's important. They have players that can make tough shots so you can't allow them to get any easy shots because then the basket becomes just way too big and it's hard to stop players like that.”
The question going into Wednesday night's Game 2 is simple.
Can the Thunder now do it again?
In a series that's been all about defense, defense and more defense for the Thunder, replicating the effort seen in Game 1 would go a long way toward OKC taking a 2-0 lead before heading to Houston.
The Thunder held the Rockets to 36.3 percent shooting, forced them to miss 28 of their 36 3-point attempts and limited Houston to 20 fast-break points, yielding only 11 in the first half.
Against a high-octane Rockets offense, the Thunder set the tone for this series by turning in one of its best defensive performances of the season.
“That's the way you beat this team,” said Derek Fisher. “Impact their ability to score the ball … If we want to win the series then we'll ask ourselves to keep doing that.”
Houston, which ranked second in the league in scoring at 106 points per game in the regular season, is 7-20 when it fails to reach triple digits. In the three wins against the Rockets this year, the Thunder has held Houston to 94.3 points.
On Sunday, the Thunder threw off the Rockets by employing a swarming defense that relied on switching defenders against the majority of Houston's ball screens and cutters. The strategy baited the Rockets into ditching their ball movement and settle instead on isolation basketball.
“It makes them be kind of selfish,” said Serge Ibaka. “When you switch against a team like them that makes them go to a lot of one-on-one. That's good for us. For them, they are going to take tough shots, some contested shots. That's something we want, something we're looking for.”
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Houston's three biggest weapons, Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, scored a combined 33 points on 37 shots.
“They didn't play as well as they can play,” Brooks said, “so we expect them to come out much better. So we have to. We have to come out much better.”
After a two-day hiatus, the Thunder sounds ready to again rev it up.
“I think the best thing about this team is that we're focused on what the task at hand is,” said Russell Westbrook. “And I think if we come out every night and play the way we played (Sunday) night it's going to be tough to beat us.”