ESPN sportscaster Mike Tirico didn't find out until late Wednesday where he would be headed to Friday night for his game telecast. He was surprised it would be Houston for Game 6 of the Thunder-Rockets series, the fourth first-round series he has covered in 14 days. Tirico will broadcast the game with analyst Hubie Brown and reporter Holly Rowe at 8:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN. Tirico discussed the series in a phone conversation Thursday:
Q: It looks like the series has flipped with the momentum now with the Rockets. What does the Thunder have to do to wrap up the series Friday night?
A: First off, hopefully we've muted all the people who have complained about Russell Westbrook. I think we have our answer in spades here, how valuable he is and what an extraordinary talent he is. That's the heartbreaking part of all this: This team has been so good all year to struggle now, because of an injury like this, is so frustrating and one that really felt unnecessary. How do you stem the momentum? I think it's the confidence. For the first time in a long time in Chesapeake Arena, Oklahoma City didn't look confident on the offensive side of the ball in the fourth quarter. There was a lot of standing around. Just not the same stuff we're used to seeing from this team. We need to see some confidence from the other offensive players besides Kevin if they are going to be able to get this thing going back in the right direction again.
Would Kevin Martin be one of those guys who needs to pick it up?
No doubt. You look out there where there were stretches in the fourth quarter where (DeAndre) Liggins was out there and you were just waiting for something to connect offensively and they didn't have it. But, hey, when the Westbrook injury happened, the first thing I said there's a massive amount of pressure on Kevin Martin. Not on Reggie Jackson, to me, because somebody needs to make up those points and Martin has the pedigree to do it. To have such a big game and to come up so empty — and he had some good looks. So you're 100 percent right. It's a lot on everybody, but Kevin Martin specifically has to play for them on Friday night in Houston.
We're you surprised by the Thunder's hack Asik strategy in the fourth quarter?
I'm never surprised when a coach mixes it in. Tom Thibodeau (Bulls coach) mixed it in Nets-Bulls Game 4 on Saturday and it turned the momentum. If Scotty (Brooks) would have gotten Asik to miss a couple of free throws and then come down and get a three and get a five-point swing, then get a four-point swing a possession later, then it would have looked like it was genius. I have no problem with the coach doing it for a couple of trips because it's within the rules. But the consequences are you start to lose confidence as a team that you have to resort to that to have a chance. With a team with a low ebb in their offensive confidence, I think that may have contributed to that even more. I personally hate the rule. I think if you want to take it out of the game, which they should, they should make any fouls like that, instead of two free throws for a common foul, it should be the old thing that we had in the '70s, three shots to make two and possession. If that's the rule, no one would ever do it.
Do you expect another big game from James Harden like he had in Game 5?
You guys saw it in the playoffs last year: James has been big in very big games and he has come up small in some big moments as you saw during the (NBA) Finals. We tend to like to write the final line of everyone's story at that moment. It's only his fourth year in the league. These are all learning experiences and now it's being the No. 1 option. I think the fact that other people were making shots early on, like Francisco Garcia, that helps free up a guy like Harden. Houston played to me exactly like they were: 3-1 with nothing to lose and letting it fly. And they'll probably play like that Friday night. It will be up to the Thunder to match that ease and freedom when they play.