Kevin McHale was asked before Wednesday night's game, his team's second date with a potential season-ending scenario, why this Thunder-Rockets series has been filled with so many 3-point shots.
“If guys are open, you shoot 'em,” Houston's coach said. “So they must be open.”
Suddenly, only the Rockets are making them.
Houston moved another step closer to flipping this series and shocking the top-seeded but short-handed Thunder with a 107-100 win in Game 5 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. With the victory, the Rockets pulled within 3-2 in this best-of-seven series after trailing 3-0.
Game 6 is Friday night back in Houston.
“You have to give them credit,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They came out and played lights out. They shot the ball so well. Some were contested. Some were not contested … But we have to do a better job.”
As simple as it sounds, Houston has shifted this series by sinking shots.
The Rockets connected on 14 of 35 3-pointers (40 percent) Wednesday and shot 47.2 percent from the field. In the last two games, the Rockets have made 26 of 62 3-pointers, a 41.9 percent clip.
“The basket's getting wider for them every game,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
By comparison, the Rockets made just 28 percent of their 3-point tries in the first three games of this series.
“We were due for a couple of 40 percent shooting nights from the 3-point line,” McHale said.
It's clear, meanwhile, that Oklahoma City is getting sucked into Houston's style. First, the Thunder yielded its size advantage in Game 2 and began matching the Rockets' small ball. And then the Thunder, ever since that closer-than-expected Game 2, began bombing 3s.
The Thunder attempted 33 3-pointers Wednesday, making only eight, a 24.2 percent night. It's the second time in this series that the Thunder has hoisted at least 30 3-pointers.
In five games, the Thunder has now attempted 28.6 3s on average.
In the regular season, the Thunder averaged only 19.4.
“They're giving us opportunities,” Brooks said. “They're loading up the paint and we have to be able to knock some of those down. But we also have to be able to take it to the basket and get to the paint.”
All the settling for outside shots is a direct sign of how much the Thunder misses point guard Russell Westbrook, who watched Wednesday's woeful performance from a suite inside the arena while healing from his season-ending knee injury.
Without the explosiveness of Westbrook, the Thunder's offense has slowed to a crawl. Fast-break opportunities have dried up, attacks on the basket have been few and far between, and as the Rockets defense has focused solely on stopping Durant the Thunder has relied on marginal outside shooting threats to emerge as the team's safety blanket.
James Harden, however, made one less 3-pointer than the entire Thunder team. He swished his first seven from downtown before missing his final two. He finished with a team-high 31 points.
He did it despite battling the flu and being a game-time decision.
“James was fantastic,” McHale said. “James didn't feel good at all all day today. But I knew he'd play. He didn't have the type of game he wanted to have in Game 4 but we were able to win. And he came out and just had an unbelievably efficient game.”
Much like Game 4, the Rockets raced to an early lead after a hot start. Houston held a 30-26 advantage after the opening quarter, benefiting from a 16-9 spurt to start the game and more precision from the perimeter. The Rockets made five of their first nine 3-point attempts and walked out of the quarter 5-for-12 from long range. Harden, who scored 11 points in the period, made all three of his 3-point tries.
Unlike the first 12 minutes Monday night, both teams displayed much better ball security. Each team turned the ball over only once. Two nights previously, the teams combined for 13 first-quarter turnovers.
It didn't take long, though, for a relative aesthetic start to turn into a sloppy slugfest. The next 12 minutes, in fact, were filled with fouls, frustration and, frankly, ghastly shooting. The Rockets managed to survive most and extended their first-quarter lead to 50-43 at the half. The teams combined to make just 14 of 39 shots.
Durant had 18 of his game-high 36 points by halftime, making six of his first 11 shots, but he had little assistance. No other Thunder player had scored more than eight points to that point, and the lack of scoring threats led to Oklahoma City shooting 41 percent in the half. Nick Collison and DeAndre Liggins combined to make all four of their first-half attempts for eight points, but they were the only other Thunder players to connect on at least 43 percent of their shots.
Oklahoma City then gave up 37 points in the third quarter, as the Rockets made 12 of 17 shots and led by as many as 16 points.
It was the first period in which it became clear the Thunder could not stop the Rockets.
Things got so bad defensively that OKC began intentionally fouling Rockets center Omer Asik, purposefully putting him on the foul line with 5 1/2 minutes remaining.
But when Asik, a career 52.7 percent foul shooter in the regular season and 43.2 percent free throw shooter in the postseason, made eight of 12 free throws, even that strategy failed.
It characterized how momentum has shifted in this series, something Harden said began with Monday night's close Rockets win.
“We just came out here and played pressure-free,” Harden said. “Go out there and just hoop. That was our mindset going into the game. Same thing back at home. Just go out there and hoop.
“We're an 8-seed. Nobody's expecting us to win. So we'll just give it what we got. Simple.”