The ink spilled on Russell Westbrook during this Thunder-Rockets series obscured how far apart these two teams were. Despite it being the rare early-playoffs matchup between MVP front-runners, this series brought out the worst in each team. I’m not sorry it’s over. There were 34 free throw attempts in Game 5’s fourth quarter alone. In the end, the Thunder played like they were blasting for minerals in a dark cave and only one guy brought a headlamp, while the Rockets ended the series relapsing into their dark-arts habit.
We want to believe that playoff basketball is where the best of the sport is played, but the truth is dudes are out here trying to win no matter what. They lose faith in team concepts, record solo albums, take ill-advised shots or don’t shoot enough, look for cheap fouls, complain when they don’t get them, and try to drive the opposition nuts. James Harden’s bum ankle was like a time machine back to the days when his game seemed like an act of corruption.
Diminished athletically, Harden seemingly looked for contact on every jumper and snapped his head on every drive. He was Moreyball on bad drugs. The Rockets shot 39 free throws in Game 5 and took 37 3s, missing 31 of them. Their offense seemed to consist entirely of Harden, Eric Gordon, or Lou Williams running off of a possibly moving high screen from Nene, giving the shooters just enough space to jump into a Thunder defender while taking a 3. I honestly can’t believe they won.
Wait, yes I can. The worst version of Houston was still capable of winning, albeit maddeningly. When the Rockets’ best player struggled, they got stops from Clint Capela and buckets from Williams. OKC had one answer: Russ. The annoying thing is that the Thunder weren’t able to imagine anything else. They tried to match the Houston pace with a Thunder engine. And when it came down to a matter of possessions, they had only one plan. Want to see Billy Donovan’s fourth-quarter playbook?
In every loss, it was the same story: On the court, Westbrook powers the Thunder; they go down when he’s off; he sinks them in the fourth by trying to do everything all of the time. He went 2-for-11 in the final quarter on Tuesday — donuts for five from behind the arc. Westbrook is my favorite basketball player, but Harden taught him how to win a game when things aren’t going your way. Westbrook could have kept the Thunder in the game at the end by driving and dishing, especially to Jerami Grant, who had an open baseline runway to the hoop. Instead, Russ had to die on his sword, and he had an audience of four teammates bearing witness.
The Rockets won’t have to spend any more time reading about agony and ecstasy of the guy whose team’s ass they were kicking. Houston wound up its series with Oklahoma City on Tuesday, winning 105–99 and dispatching the Thunder in five games, but it felt like the Rockets were bystanders in their own victory. That wasn’t a win for the Houston Rockets on Tuesday so much as it was a loss for the Thunder. This might sound uncharitable, but it’s hard to feel that generous toward Houston when it plays the way it did in Game 5.