While watching Thursday night’s Game 2 matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, it felt like OKC would win the game. Despite not leading by more than six points the entire game, and playing exactly the way Houston wanted them to play, it felt like the Thunder should have won.
Why did it still feel like the Thunder would win Game 2? Because they contained Harden, which in the past would have been enough. OKC’s undrafted rookie that just recently signed a full NBA contract was the one that took on the task of guarding the league’s craftiest scorer and was successful in doing it.
After a Game 1 performance where Harden scored 37 points on a plethora of defenders, shooting 12-of-22 from the field and an even more lethal 6-of-13 from three, a very defensively skilled Dort did his job, and he did it masterfully.
For the game, Harden shot 5-of-16 from the field and 2-of-11 from three, which isn’t good by any standards. While guarded by Dort, Harden’s stat-line was an even worse 2-of-12 from the field and 1-of-10 from three for 12 points. Seven of the final nine points that Harden scored was on Dennis Schröder, while Dort sat on the bench because his offensive game wasn’t suitable for a 9-point comeback.
Billy Donovan took a bold risk, putting his trust in the Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner, who has played solid defense all season long while providing elite offense off the bench. Donovan’s decision wasn’t the right one, and any chance the Thunder had to make a fourth-quarter comeback (which they’ve done plenty of times this season), was derailed.
“Lu was amazing,” said Chris Paul. “He tried to make it as tough on James as possible. He did a great job of keeping his hands back without fouling, except for a couple here and there that they’re gonna call. Otherwise, Lu was amazing tonight, and it was great to have him back.”
But, to think that the Thunder can’t right their wrongs and get back on track for Game 3 on Saturday would be irresponsible to say. Thursday was Dort’s second-consecutive game holding Harden to a below-average offensive performance. Through his two games as Harden’s primary defender, the three-time scoring champion has shot 14-of-45 (31%) from the field and 3-of-28 (11%) from three.
Dort is doing his job, and we should probably expect him to do his job again on Saturday. Whether he does his job or not, though, if Chris Paul doesn’t step up, this team is going nowhere, and the same goes for Schröder, who looked lackadaisical and uninterested on Thursday.
Paul was a -36 plus/minus in this game. Translation: in the 37 minutes that Paul played, the Thunder were outscored by 36 points, which is statistically his third-worst game in his 1,123-game career. Knowing Paul, he’ll correct that himself.
The biggest factor in the Thunder falling back 2-0 is Houston’s bench. The Rockets aren’t a deep team by any standards, but players with names other than James Harden have been stepping up in Russell Westbrook’s absence, making his loss less of a blow for them. On Tuesday, it was Jeff Green, Ben Mclemore, and Eric Gordon combining for 58 points in addition to Harden’s 37. On Thursday, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker, Jeff Green, and Eric Gordon combined for 63. Meanwhile, OKC’s bench that goes 10-11 players deep was still outscored by Houston’s 32-20.
Outside of Paul and Schroder, the Thunder looked more prepared for this game than they did in Game 1. They had a clear gameplan for Harden, which was the most-needed adjustment. What seemed to be an easy fix for the Thunder is to exploit Houston’s lack of fortitude in the paint. Steven Adams only got four shot attempts in which he was successful, shooting 4-of-4 for the game for eight points. Nerlens Noel got four attempts as well, shooting 2-4 for four points.
OKC may have prepared for Harden, but they didn’t take advantage of the mismatch in the paint. Instead of forcing Houston to play their game, Houston forced OKC into their playing style by shooting 32 threes and only connecting on 11. Now they’re in a 0-2 hole, without Westbrook’s return possibly nearing.