After the Houston Rockets won Game 2 here in Houston last week, I wrote the following introduction right here in this space:
So long as we have a series that involves the likely top two vote getters in this season's NBA Most Valuable Player race, this is probably what the preamble for each "4 Winners, 4 Losers" post is going to turn into. But on Wednesday night, we were treated to Exhibit B in the case of Harden versus Westbrook, 2017 MVP race...
Again, given their near identical raw stats — points, rebounds, assists per game — during the regular season, I come back to the fact that James runs a smoother ship than Russ. The maniacal chucker that Russ morphed into over the final ten minutes? I don't think that club exists in James's bag, thank God. Here's to two more lectures this week on why James Harden will get robbed of the MVP trophy.
Well, I stand corrected. No, James hasn't morphed into a maniacal chucker, not at all. What he was on Sunday was a pedestrian star basketball player, clanking his way to a 5 of 16 afternoon and mixing in 7 careless turnovers. It wasn't something that was a first-quarter or first-half funk. Aside from a big jumper that put the Rockets up five late in the game, Harden's anti-MVP performance carried all the way into the waning seconds, when some wonky decision making almost allowed the Thunder to steal a win.
Conversely, Russell Westbrook played, by and large (minus a few moments of random chucking), the type of game they needed from him to even the series at two games apiece — 35 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists, and only 28 shots from the field, not 43. Hell, the Thunder even got a combined 15 of 20 from Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams.
Yet here we sit, in the aftermath of a strange 113-109 Rockets win, wondering exactly how the Rockets are up 3-1 in this series. Well, here's how it got done yesterday...
4. Eric Gordon
On the surface, it was a 5 for 13 night from Gordon. However, he was 4 for 7 from three point range, and beyond that, Gordon brings a toughness and confidence to the second unit that was nonexistent last season. His outside shooting was what had everybody talking during the first half of the regular season (see: Contest, Three Point Shooting), but Gordon's strength with the basketball in his hands, and his ability to attack the basket, have been crucial in this series. Gordon's been worth every penny of his $13 million and then some.
3. Victor Oladipo
After two wretched games in Houston, especially the opener in which he went 1 for 12 from the field, Oladipo seems to have found his sea legs, going 7 for 10 from the field, including a gigantic three pointer down the stretch to keep things a one possession game when the Rockets were trying to create some breathing room. Oladipo is one of a handful of players who have the potential to be the third-best player in the series behind the two MVP candidates. He has shown more flashes of that potential in the last two games. It might be too little, too late for this series, but this is a crucially important story line for the Thunder heading into next season.
2. Russell Westbrook
As I mentioned earlier, if I were a Thunder fan and someone handed me Westbrook's line for this game before the game and asked, "Would you sign up for this as his performance today?" I'd have asked for a pen. He had a triple double at halftime, and finished with a for-him-kind-of-efficient 35-14-14 on 28 shots. Again, not exactly peak Harden efficiency, but for what the Thunder ask of him, about as good as you can expect, given the playoff intensity. Maybe the most subtly significant part of Russ's line is the plus-minus of +14, which is a solid indicator of just how bad the Thunder bench is when Westbrook rests. After the game, he wouldn't hear of it...
I get what Russ is trying to do. It's noble. It's also a totally fair question from that reporter. Let Steven Adams speak, Russ! That's not leadership, that's bitchiness.
When you scour the Rockets box score, player after player, you wonder, "How in the hell did they win this game?" Then you get to Nene — 12-12 for 28 points. Honestly, where would they be in this series without Nene? What they do with him next season will be interesting, because he is in line for a BIG raise over the one-year, $2.9 million deal he signed this offseason. Many Rockets fans are begging Mike D'Antoni to start Nene and bench Clint Capela...in fact, let's discuss this more in the next paragraph...
4. Clint Capela
Capela, quite frankly, looked lost out there on Sunday. He has really struggled over the last three games of this series with the Thunder's interior size and length, going 7 for 18 from the floor on several shots at the rim. He is having trouble catching entry passes, and just looks overmatched. My guess is that D'Antoni will start him again in Game 5, since he will be in a more comfortable environment at home, and a 3-1 lead gives the head coach the luxury of working through issues while still winning games. However, make no mistake, if the Capela of Game 4 (-25 plus-minus!) shows up, D'Antoni needs to consider giving Montrezl Harrell at least a look. He can't be any worse than Capela was on Sunday.
3. Rocket end points of games — front and back
For the third straight game, the Rockets got off to a slow start, falling behind by double digits in the first quarter. The thing about these troubling opening moments for the Rockets is that they're not just missing shots, but they look careless with the basketball and lazy on defense. Now, it's the NBA, and on the road, those types of runs will happen to a visiting team, but the Rockets need to come out with more energy if and when they play in the next round of the playoffs, or it could be a shorter postseason than we all hoped for. Also, closing out the wins in Games 2 and 4 has been equally troublesome, with missed free throws and turnovers allowing Oklahoma City to turn what should be comfortable Rocket wins into nailbiters. This team's focus at the beginning and end of games has been lacking.
This gave me an ulcer the size of a softball. pic.twitter.com/VIXJh4n0pC— Ross Bolen (@WRBolen) April 23, 2017
2. Andre Roberson
On Sunday, we welcomed back an old friend. It was the reappearance of the hack-a strategy! Poor Andre Roberson...
The Rockets bench laughing at Roberson at the free throw line gotta be some of the biggest disrespect ive ever seen in the NBA pic.twitter.com/KkzPKKK0jb— AGENT OF NBA CHAOS (@World_Wide_Wob) April 23, 2017
Dudes just straight up laughing at him! The final few moments of that game, between the "hack-a" and the proliferation of Harden and Westbrook trying to lean their way into three shot fouls, became porn for the league's competition committee this offseason.
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SHOW ME HOW
1. Stuart Scaramucci, the son of Thunder minority owner Jay Scaramucci.
Patrick Beverley was fined $25,000 for getting into a confrontation with a fan in the stands during Friday's Game 3. Here was Beverley's take on it before the game Sunday...
Turns out the fan in question is some jerk named Stuart Scaramucci, and he is the son of Thunder minority owner Jay Scaramucci. Let's be clear, if you're a fan who stands over a player and curses him out, you're a loser. If you're one of the owner's sons and you do it, not only are you a loser, you're an entitled brat who should be forced to fight Patrick Beverley in a lumberjack match in the middle of the court after the game is over.
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.