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Thunder 104, Rockets 101

by Darnell Mayberry Published: April 28, 2013

Nuggets from my notebook from Saturday’s Game 3 win at Houston.

  • Dirty play or not, it didn’t matter. A message needed to be sent, and it was Kendrick Perkins who would deliver it. All it took was 29 seconds. Perk had Patrick Beverley in his sights, all lined up, with Russell Westbrook’s lateral meniscus in mind. He squared his body and took his shot. As Reggie Jackson brought the ball across halfcourt, Perk stationed himself right in Beverley’s path, leaned in, lowered his shoulder and boom. Message sent. Tone set. Westbrook was gone but by no means forgotten.
  • That how the most emotional night in Thunder history began. For the first time, the Thunder had to play without Westbrook. His jersey hung in its usual stall inside the visitor’s locker room at Toyota Center before the game, but Westbrook was far, far away, wrapping up an unforeseen day of surgery and rehab on the mangled right knee that will keep him out of the rest of this postseason.
  • “There’s no way around it. It’s been an emotional 48 hours,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
  • Not once throughout the day Saturday did the Thunder, whether a player or a coach, make an excuse. With or without Westbrook the goal remained the same: win Game 3.
  • So many questions surrounded how exactly the Thunder would achieve that goal. Who would replace Westbrook as the starter? If it was Jackson, would the second-year point guard be ready? What type of performance would Kevin Durant deliver? Would he score 50, or would he get 15 assists? How’s the offense going to work? Could Serge Ibaka step up? Could Kevin Martin manufacture a 20-point performance? It didn’t take long for us to get some answers.
  • The Thunder built a 20-point lead after the first quarter, getting 17 of its 39 points from Durant. But the first two field goals for the Thunder were converted by Ibaka, who hit an 18-footer, and Jackson, who stroked a corner 3. Both buckets enabled the Thunder to exhale. They proved that the role players who needed to step up had come to play.
  • Old friend James Harden picked up two fouls in the first 3:09. Rockets coach Kevin McHale decided to leave him in there. It was a risky move but it didn’t backfire. A few said to me it would have been riskier to take him out, which I certainly get considering the rest of the Rockets’ roster. But a third foul at that juncture could have costly. It could have completely taken Harden out of the game and his rhythm.
  • Westbrook’s replacements, Jackson and Derek Fisher, ended up being terrific. Jackson was steady as a shooter, slasher, ball-handler and defender. Fisher provided much of the same. Fittingly, both made a pair of free throws to extend the Thunder’s lead to three in the final 13 seconds, ensuring the Rockets couldn’t hit a game-winner.
  • Brooks on Jackson and Fish: “The guys came in and the both stepped up. Reggie did just a terrific job. I’m proud of the way he played. He kept his composure during some tough moments of the game. His last five minutes, you would think that he was playing for six or seven years. But it’s a great testament to his character.”
  • Jackson made two of four 3-pointers. That’s not only a good sign, but it also was significant. That’s because both makes came in the corners. Both misses came above the 3-point break. One of them fell brutally short, barely scraping front rim. That’s been a trend for Jackson all season. At some point, Jackson and the coaching staff have to pick up on this and adjust, use it to their advantage rather than allowing the status quo to be a detriment. Up to this point, that hasn’t been the case. In the regular season, Jackson made six of 11 3s from the right corner, a 54.5 percent rate. It was his second highest percentage from a specific area, trailing only the restricted area. Even if you threw in his 1-for-6 clip from the left corner, Jackson still shot a respectable 41.1 percent from the corners. You could say the problem with that argument is that 11 (or 17) attempts are a small sample size. And you’d be right. It is a small sample size and that’s a problem. Because 81 of Jackson’s 104 3-point attempts in the regular season came from above the 3-point break. He made just 21 percent of those. Yet those shots made up 25 percent of his total attempts. It’s his lowest percentage of any spot from which he’s attempted at least 10 shots.
  • This was Jackson’s first career start. Though that might seem like an obvious fact given Westbrook’s durability, it’s noteworthy nonetheless. Your first NBA start comes on the road, in a playoff game, as the replacement to Russell freaking Westbrook. Talk about pressure. But as Brooks said, Jackson handled it like a veteran. He finished with 14 points, two rebounds, one assist and three turnovers.
  • Fisher was fantastic from the moment he stepped on the court to replace Jackson early in the opening quarter due to foul trouble. He nailed his first shot, a corner 3, and supplied strong defense against Beverley, Jeremy Lin and, when switched onto him, Harden.
  • One of Fish’s shots? You know it, a “short 3.” His playoff tally now stands at one.
  • Something nobody ever talks about when it comes to Fish is his hands. They’re great. They’re quick and he’s got extraordinary timing. You absolutely cannot be carefree with the ball when Fish is in front of you.
  • Ibaka more than pulled his weight. He scored 17 points with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. He started the game hitting the glass, using his size and athleticism to own the paint. That then led to second chances for the Thunder and four quick points for Ibaka. Seemed like once Ibaka got off to that start there was no stopping him.
  • Love how Serge shoots with so much confidence these days. It’s to the point where he immediately fires up shots — not layups, jump shots — off offensive rebounds. You want to shake your head but then it drops and all you can do is say “cool.”
  • Houston led 9-3 in the opening minutes. OKC then went on a 13-0 run to take a 16-9 lead. That spurt soon swelled to 20-2 and bumped the Thunder’s lead to 23-11.
  • The next field goal was Durant’s monster driving dunk over Omer Asik. It was a Stretch Armstrong-like slam, which has sort of become Durant’s patented poster. OKC is now 34-0 when Durant has a Stretch Armstrong. Unofficially, of course.
  • Here’s how great the first quarter was: OKC led by 20, the Thunder out-rebounded Houston 13-2, outscored the Rockets 10-0 in second chance points, saw seven players score, converted 13 of 21 shots, made five of six from downtown, eight of eight from the foul line, limited Houston to 1-for-8 shooting from 3-point range and held the Rockets to two fast break points.
  • The 39 first-quarter points for the Thunder tied a team playoff record for points in a period.
  • K-Mart didn’t check in until 4:08 was left in the first quarter. It was much later than I anticipated. But thanks to the hot start, Brooks didn’t have to go to him earlier. Then, when K-Mart did enter he got his first shot blocked by Carlos Delfino. You thought, ‘Uh oh, here we go.” But that block aside Martin got off to a hot start, scoring 12 points on 3-for-5 shooting with two assists in the first half.
  • Martin’s second half? A different story: 0 points, 0-for-6 shooting, one rebound, one assist, one steal in 15 minutes.
  • In the first three games of this series, K-Mart has averaged 12.7 points on 31.4 percent shooting.
  • Brooks on K-Mart: “He made some shots that we needed. He missed a couple of open looks. He’s going to make those shots. He’s been a shot-maker his entire career. He didn’t make a couple of them, but it’s something that we know what he does. He’s done it all year. He’ll come back. Hopefully he can get those same shots and he can come back and make them Monday night.”
  • Late in the first quarter, portions of the Toyota Center crowd began chanting “Joey sucks.” It was directed at official Joey Crawford, who every fan base seems to hate. By the fourth quarter, the chant had spread to all sections.
  • The Thunder led by as many as 26 on two occasions in the second quarter. At that point, it looked like this game and series was O-V-E-R.
  • But this is a scrappy bunch Houston has.
  • The Rockets stormed back in a third quarter in which the Thunder’s offense was awful and their own shots began to fall. Houston outscored OKC 27-14 in the third period, the Thunder missing 20 of 25 shots and turning it over four times. Suddenly, that 26-point Thunder lead was trimmed to four heading into the fourth.
  • “Good NBA players competing,” Brooks said of what fueled Houston’s charge. “It’s as simple as that. We had a big lead, but they’ve got good players just like we do.”
  • Brooks continued. “It wasn’t that we relaxed,” he said. “They were making some amazing plays.”
  • Can’t really say the Thunder is playing with fire because it’s not being done intentionally. But these blown leads have got to stop. That’s now three double-digits leads in the last four games against Houston that have been wiped out and given the Rockets a chance to win. In the first game out of the All-Star break, the Thunder squandered a 12-point lead with 6:22 left to play and ended up losing. In Game 2, the Thunder watched its 15-point lead with 9:24 remaining evaporate and turn into a two-point deficit in the final three minutes. OKC held on in that one and won by three. Tonight, the Thunder trailed by two with 45 seconds left, that onetime 26-point cushion at that point being a distant memory.
  • It took a backwards flip of a layup by Ibaka and a prayer 3 from Durant for the Thunder to dodge a monumental collapse.
  • “We feel we should be up 2-1 right now,” said Chandler Parsons. “And we’re down 0-3.”
  • More from Parsons: “We’re never going to give up until we lose four games or we win four games. They still got to beat us one more time. That’s our mentality going (forward). It’s a one-game series from now on. We’re not going to hang our heads. We’re frustrated and we’re heartbroken right now, but we’ve got to use this feeling right now and get better tomorrow and then be ready Monday night because the series is not over yet.”
  • I’ll say this about the Rockets. They have a system, and even though it’s predictable and perhaps even gimmicky and not good enough to win big, it’s an organized approach that puts players in positions to succeed. Much of the Rockets’ comeback was a result of Houston’s players knowing where to be and when to be there. They knew who was going to get the shots and exactly how they were going to get them. The Thunder, on the other hand, unleashed what amounted to an anything-goes approach. There was no rhythm, no sets, no system. The offense basically became a gumbo pot of isolations, ball screens and bail-outs. Hard to make a case that it was that way because Westbrook was out. When he’s playing it’s generally even worse, though his amazing athleticism tends to make it look better. With the talent the Thunder has, it would be interesting to see what a more sophisticated system would do, especially for the team’s role players.
  • DeAndre Liggins started the second quarter. My night was as good as complete.
  • Some guy did this in roughly six minutes at halftime. But the 17-point hole Houston stared at sucked the energy out of the building. Didn’t get half the applause it deserved.
  • Durant lunging at Lin and reaching in on him as he brought the ball up with the intent to call a timeout was another nod to his buddy Westbrook. It happened with 9:19 in the second quarter, and with Lin suffering from a well-publicized chest injury (even wearing protective padding), it either was a perfect eye-for-an-eye play or a dirty play depending on your point of view. Either way, you got to love how much the Thunder stood up for Westbrook tonight.
  • Early on, the Thunder held a 16-0 edge in bench points. OKC finished the game on the wrong end of the bench battle, losing it 37-27.
  • After getting out-rebounded 57-40 in Game 2, the Thunder did win the rebound game this time, 49-41.
  • Houston had just five offensive rebounds and only nine second chance points. The Thunder had 13 offensive boards and 18 second chance points.
  • Houston had no Greg Smith tonight for what it’s worth.
  • In the final five minutes, the Thunder went 3-for-9. Five of those final nine field goal attempts were 3-pointers, three by Durant, one by Thabo Sefolosha and one by K-Mart.
  • Sefolosha did a great job on Harden. He kept him in front of him most of the night, turning him into a shooter and contested most of Harden’s shots extremely well when he did squeeze them off.
  • And Thabo gave it up on the break tonight! Twice!!
  • Perk played just 16 minutes, but his pick on Beverley and his work limiting Asik’s impact were huge.
  • I could write another thousand words about the game Durant had. He did everything, putting his team on his back and supplying everything the Thunder needed, exactly when the team needed it. He tied his playoff career high of 41 points. He grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds. He dished four assists. He played all but 44 seconds.
  • Durant played point guard most of the night, bringing the ball up throughout the game and initiating the offense. He took over as a floor general for so long that the first time I noticed Fisher bringing the ball up with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter I had to do a double take. I barely recognized Fish. But Durant embraced the challenge. Didn’t take long for him to demand the ball on every possession and begin barking instructions and assignments.
  • “Kevin has done a great job of being a playmaker all season long,” Brooks said. “He’s done that the last couple of years. He’s an amazing scorer and we look at that a lot. But he sets up a lot of guys to get easy buckets. He’s a playmaker.”
  • Of course, there’s a natural question of how long Durant can keep this up. As great as he is, nobody can go through an entire postseason averaging 47 minutes and a 40/14/4. Nobody. Fortunately for Durant, Brooks said he probably won’t continue to play 47 minutes. “I’ll probably rest him a few minutes in the first half,” Brooks said. “There are long timeouts and we use our timeouts wisely. In the second and fourth quarters, there’s a lot of real-time rest. But if he has an opportunity to get a few more minutes of rest in the first half I’m going to take advantage of that.”
  • Durant: “I just listen to coach, whatever he tells me. If he tells me to stay in, I stay in. If he pulls me out of the game, he pulls me out the game. I played the whole game except for a few seconds, but I felt good.”
  • Before taking his seat atop the podium for his postgame press, KD essentially demanded another chair be added. It was for a young boy. As the two sat Durant said “He’s sitting in for Russell.” Durant then explained who the kid was. “I met this guy when we played down here this season,” he said. “His hometown is McAllen (Texas) and he brings us good luck.”
  • Durant on his go-ahead 3 that bounced on the rim three times before falling, finally, with 36.9 seconds remaining: “The Lord was with us. That’s all I was thinking. As soon as I shot it and it hit the back of the rim I was thinking, ‘Not again. A tough 3 I shot. Maybe I should have drove. Maybe I should have got a foul.’ But it bounced in all because of the good Lord, man.”
  • Harden on Durant’s shot: “He just made a lucky shot. It was good defense. The ball bounced three times around the rim and just went in. It just took the energy out of us. It was a big-time shot.”
  • Up next. Game 4 at Houston on Monday night.

-DM-


by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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