Three hours before Wednesday night's contest against the Thunder, a clearly fatigued Kelvin Sampson sat on the Houston Rockets' bench at Chesapeake Energy Arena and whispered, “I'm curious how much these guys will have left in the tank tonight.”
A physically and emotionally draining 26½ hours mercifully ended for the Rockets with a 120-98 setback to the Thunder before a sellout crowd of 18,203.
“Actually, I was kind of proud of our guys,” said Sampson, the former Oklahoma coach. “I thought we hung in there about as long as we could.”
The Rockets' journey began with a 117-101 victory at home over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. A 40-person travel party of Houston players, coaches, staff members and front-office personnel flew to Minnesota after the game to attend Wednesday services for Alexandra “Sasha” McHale, the 23-year-old daughter of Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who died last Saturday from complications of lupus.
After the Rockets received approval from the NBA to arrive later than normal for their next game, Houston's charter flight arrived in Minneapolis around 2 a.m. Wednesday. The team left for the memorial service at 10 a.m., paid their respects to the McHale family, flew to OKC and arrived around 2 p.m.
Rather than check into a hotel, the team went directly to the arena and began prepping for the 7 p.m. tip against the Thunder.
In addition to the normal pressures that go with facing the defending Western Conference champions, this was the first time James Harden would play against his former teammates after the Oct. 27 trade that sent him, Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich and Lazar Hayward to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two conditional first-round draft picks and a second-round pick.
Harden struggled from the outset, missing his first eight shots from the field and getting six shots blocked on the night. He wound up shooting 3 for 16 and finished with 17 points, three assists and three turnovers.
“I just think James was probably pressing a little a bit,” said Sampson, who has served as Houston's interim coach since McHale left to be with his family on Nov. 10. “I'm not sure he would admit it.”
Cook started in place of injured forward Chandler Parsons (shoulder) and finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block and three turnovers.
In addition to physical and emotional fatigue, the Rockets' biggest shortcoming might have been the loss of Parsons, who has played well in the past defending Kevin Durant.
As a whole, Houston (7-8) has always played the Thunder tough and still leads the all-time series 9-7, but there wasn't enough juice left in the tank Wednesday.
Sampson mentioned one more determining factor.
“This is a good team, man,” Sampson said of the Thunder (12-4). “They've got weapons. Kevin Martin is a great fit for this team because Durant and (Russell) Westbrook can get in the paint.
“They're good. They have a perfect symmetry here. They have fans, a great team and that makes it a tough place to play. Yeah, we've had a tough 24 hours, but give OKC some credit.”