The Thunder-Rockets first-round series was easily framed as a battle between the NBA’s two leading MVP candidates, but what unfolded in the final minutes of Game 4 was bizarre. Russell Westbrook and James Harden were present on the court, but seemed to be bystanders in an awkward climax that resulted in Houston winning 113–109 to open up a 3–1 series lead on Oklahoma City.
There were blown defenses, confusing strategies, and seemingly dozens of missed free throws. Sometimes players scored for their opponents:
Here is our attempt at documenting the strangest aspects from this parade of basketball strangeness.
Andre Roberson has been shooting well this series. He hit four 3s in Game 1; he hit two more in Game 3. Overall, he’s 7-for-14 from beyond the arc.
He’s also shooting horribly this series. He didn’t shoot any free throws in games 1 and 2, then missed all five he took in Game 3, and missed his first six Sunday before finishing 2-for-12. The Thunder resorted to the Hack-a-Roberson in the game’s closing minutes, and cackled on the bench as he missed.
Billy Donovan had ample opportunity to sub him out, but kept him in for the entirety of the time in which the Hack-a-Roberson was a legal strategy. The Rockets continued to score while Roberson hurled the ball aimlessly at the rim.
Neither of Roberson’s shooting performances makes sense. Roberson is a career 26 percent shooter from 3 — his high for a season came last year, when he cracked 31 percent. He shouldn’t be knocking down 3s, but he is a player who can throw a ball into a basket on occasion.
And yet his free throws are doomed. Even though he shot over 50 percent in all three of his seasons at Colorado, he shot just 42 percent at the line this year, and is 2-for-17 in the playoffs. There’s no obvious hitch or flaw in his form, although he does shoot at an unreasonably high angle.
The Hack-a-[Blank] strategy is wildly unpopular among fans, because it stops the flow of the game and isolates free throw shooting, one of the least exciting parts of basketball — and, specifically, players who are worse at that part of basketball than the average rec league player. I personally love it for reasons like this. There’s no good reason for a player of Roberson’s basketball ability to be aggressively bad at shooting free throws, and yet here he was, costing his team the game while the opponent laughed in his face.
But Steven Adams Is Amazing at Missing Free Throws
The Thunder were down four with just over 20 seconds left, and Steven Adams was at the line. He needed to miss a free throw, which is a situation many teams have been in before. I’ve never seen somebody execute it as well as Adams did:
He nailed every part of it. He popped the ball off the front of the rim such that it ricocheted (a) straight backwards in Adams’s direction and (b) far enough that Adams could rebound it even though he wasn’t allowed to cross the free throw line until the ball hit the rim. (Perhaps Adams should be an Olympic shot-putter like his sister.) And in one motion, he rebounded the ball and passed it to Westbrook.
Maybe this was luck. Maybe it was a skill that Adams is better at than every other basketball player I’ve ever seen.
The Nenê Gamê (please pronounce “game” such that it rhymes with “Nenê”)
Over the course of his 15-year career, Nenê has shedded his last name and added weight and enormous gray-flecked dreads. He’s reaching the end of his NBA rope: He started for NBA teams for over a decade; this year he was third in the Rockets’ big-man rotation behind younger, more athletic players in Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell — and the Rockets often opted not to play a traditional big man.
And yet, Nenê just played the best game of his 939-game career. His career high is 30 points; In Game 4, he went 12-for-12 from the field with 28 points, tying a playoff record for most baskets without a miss. He also had 10 rebounds. The only other player with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and no misses in a playoff game? Wilt Chamberlain.
The Rockets were plus-24 with Nenê on the court. Enes Kanter couldn’t stop him, which is normal for players guarded by Enes Kanter; neither could Steven Adams, which is an aberration. He was excellent in the half court, grabbing offensive boards and hitting hook shots; he was better in transition, outsprinting the Thunder time and time again to earn easy slams and putbacks. He may be hitting over 92 percent (23-for-25) from the field this series, but he’s missing 50 percent of his attempts from the free throw line. It’s a bit of a theme.
A Bunch of People Besides Russell Westbrook and James Harden Decided the Game
Harden didn’t play his best. He had 16 points after averaging 38.7 points in the series’ first three games. He missed every 3 he took, he had seven turnovers. And yet the Rockets won, in large part due to 64 bench points.
Westbrook played an incredible game, logging his third consecutive triple-double in the series, finishing with 35 points, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists. The last player with three straight playoff triple-doubles? Wilt Chamberlain. (He was good, apparently.) But the team was minus-18 in the nine minutes Westbrook didn’t play.
To summarize, Oklahoma City was 14 points better than the Rockets when Westbrook was on the floor, and Westbrook played for almost the entire game. How things played out in Game 4 was a neat summary of the season for both teams: Harden has a great supporting cast, and Westbrook has himself.
After the game, Adams was asked about why the team is so much worse when Westbrook isn’t playing. Westbrook refused to let Adams answer the question, explaining that the team’s successes and failures are earned together while casting the question as an effort to divide the team.
Westbrook has to do everything for the Thunder, from scoring and rebounding and creating to answering questions intended for his teammates. And yet it’s fruitless: The team lost, and Westbrook’s attempt at heading off a divisive question will surely lead to more furor and angst than if he’d just let Adams say “Hey, we need to play better.” Ultimately, his best efforts can’t stop everything from spiralling out of control.