2017 NBA Playoffs: Rockets 105, Thunder 99 — 4 Winners, 4 Losers

James Harden will not win the MVP award, but he beat Russell Westbrook at what counts — a playoff series.
James Harden will not win the MVP award, but he beat Russell Westbrook at what counts — a playoff series.

I'm not sure about the rest of Red Nation, but I'm still trying to figure out what exactly I watched over the past five Rockets games, which on paper was a methodical 4-1 silencing of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but to our actual eyes was a street fight in which the Rockets were probably beaten on rounds — of the 20 quarters in the series, it felt like the Thunder won about 14 or 15 of them — but were able to get four knockouts when it mattered.

Viewed one way, this series with the Thunder exposed a bunch of blemishes with this Rockets team that the skeptics said would show come April — What if the threes aren't falling? This team does have some issues with size on the interior. Can they defend at a high level when they need to? Is James Harden REALLY the MVP?

Viewed another way, the Rockets were able to overcome these obstacles, some of them imposed on them by the Thunder, some self-inflicted, and were able to win a series easily enough to where they will enter their second round series against whoever it may be, the Spurs or the Grizzlies, with a few extra days of rest at least.

The bottom line is that the Rockets found a way to get the job done, and if they can just shoot open jumpers more efficiently (in theory, something that should regress to the mean in the second round), they'll be okay. For now, let's enjoy like hell the fact that they viciously exposed the "small thermal exhaust port" in the ungodly Death Star that is Russell Westbrook — that Russ is easily driven to insanity that forces him to shoot basketballs like JUGS machines shoot out footballs.

Now, onto winners and losers, rapid-fire style...

WINNERS

4. The second unit
No series is won or lost on just ONE THING, but if you had to find a commonality in the three single-digit Rockets wins, it's what the Rockets' late-third-early-fourth-quarter second unit (buoyed by the three-headed backcourt of Gordon-Williams-Beverley) did while Westbrook was on the bench. Here are the numbers:

Game 2: 86-74 OKC to 89-86 OKC in 2:20 (+9, 12-3 run)
Game 4: 77-73 OKC to 81-79 HOU in 2:19 (+6, 8-2 run)
Game 5: 77-74 OKC to 86-81 HOU in 2:45 (+8, 12-4 run)

The double whammy on this for the Thunder is that in Games 2 and 5, at least, these runs led to a different, crazier, more shot-happy Russ coming into the game, seemingly feeling like he had to do it all himself. You'd think that in an elimination game, OKC head coach Billy Donovan might have refrained from ripping his shirt open and saying, "Here...stab me RIGHT HERE." But he didn't, and the Rockets move on.

3. Vernon Maxwell
I love a good redemption story, and the way the Rockets have welcomed Mad Max back into the fold since his resurfacing for the 20th anniversary of the back-to-back title teams two years ago has been fantastic to see, as have Maxwell's frequent in-game appearances on Twitter...

Last night, the pregame formula to get the crowd hyped was "Mad Max and a ton of dollar beer," which, frankly, should be the formula for a better life overall...

2. Seattle
And thus concludes another postseason for the Oklahoma City Thunder in which the good folks of Seattle can breathe easy knowing they didn't have an NBA title contender stolen from them a decade or so ago. As a city that's been through that in football, Seattle, we got your back.

1. Patrick Beverley
Savage... that's all I'll say... SAVAGE.

LOSERS

4. Russell Westbrook
For a guy who just shot his team out of the playoffs, Russ sure was in a playful, jokey mood after the game last night...

Um, no, Russ...no dream...you were garbage late in games. It's a little different in the postseason from how it is knocking down buzzer beaters in front of 10,000 half-caring fans in Denver in March...

The big question now for Westbrook and for OKC general manager Sam Presti is "How do you improve this team?" I mean, this may be as good as it gets for this roster composition, given the Thunder's cap situation and the relative desirability of playing with Westbrook in Oklahoma City (versus playing other places with different, more sane stars and cities with a better nightlife). These numbers here are a little scary, if you're Presti...

Short of convincing Adam Silver to somehow realign Oklahoma City into the Eastern Conference, this Thunder team likely isn't winning a first-round series for a while.

3. Rockets -7 backers
There was a lot the Rockets did wrong in this series, as we've mentioned — poor three point shooting (28.4 percent for the series), slow starts, getting mauled on the glass at times — but the most troubling one might have been just how out of sorts they were late in their close wins. It was a strange thing to watch — a veteran team with one of the smartest players in basketball trying to run out eight- to ten-point leads in the final minute of Games 2, 4 and 5, and what we saw was a slew of turnovers, dumb fouls and bad shots. It was like their collective basketball IQ plummeted 50 points as soon as the clock ticked below one minute. Look, just HAVING these leads late in games is a good problem to have, but dammit, PLAY BASKETBALL like you know how! Also, a small prayer for those who backed the Rockets at -7 last night and had to watch them cough up a covering lead in the final minute. Those are the real victims here.

2. Andre Roberson
It only showed up for a couple of trips down the floor in Game 5, but Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni dusted off the hack-a strategy again on Roberson, who obliged by missing all but one of his free throws. I will say this — of all the players on whom hack-a has been unleashed in the past couple of years (Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Roberson), Roberson easily looks like the one who is most likely to soil himself during his follow-through. That poor bastard looks PETRIFIED.

1. Ryvor Anderiza
That is my combo name for the Rockets starting forward tandem of Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, who if they were a superhero would have a super power that allows them to somehow still see the floor despite both shooting three pointers like seven-year-olds in a birthday cake coma playing Pop-A-Shot...

Of all things, going into the second round, THIS HAS TO CHANGE.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.


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