It was supposed to be a head-to-head between a pair of guys traded for one another last offseason. It was going to be Russell Westbrook vs. Chris Paul. Westbrook, however, was sidelined with a strained quad and Paul was only average in his first playoff game against his former teammates as the Rockets cruised to a 123-108 win in Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The Rockets were energetic and sharp from the outset and many of the concerns over the loss of their point guard — temporarily, they hope — appeared overblown and his team managed just fine without him. And a rather unlikely cast of characters off the bench, led by James Harden, of course, was the difference in this one.
Mike D'Antoni, tactician.
For all the talk of D'Antoni's decision to go all-in on the smallball concept he attempted years ago in Phoenix, perhaps overlooked was his strategy against the Thunder. The Rockets' tenacious and relentless defense as well as bringing Harden off the ball much of the night, allowing front court players to advance the ball, clearly caught OKC off guard. Small tweaks to both ends of the floor left the Thunder off balance all night and one of the best defenses in the NBA was caught looking as the Rockets picked them apart.
Credit to Kelly Iko of the Athletic, who mentioned Green's name as someone the Rockets were targeting back in July. People chuckled at the thought Green could be a serious contributor, but then this craziness happened...
Can’t believe Jeff Green pulled this off pic.twitter.com/i5DgW9eH8X— Rob (44-28) (13-10) (@Hou5ton4L) August 19, 2020
Green, the Rockets center, had 22 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and was a plus-28 for the night. He has been remarkably efficient since joining the team and seems to have found a role as Harden's safety valve, much the way former center Clint Capela was. The difference is that Green can also hit the three — he was 3-7 from distance Tuesday night. Maybe Iko can give us all some lotto numbers next.
One of the real worries was how the bench would perform, particularly given Westbrook's injury. But, at least on Tuesday, that was not an issue, outscoring OKC's bench 42-30, including Green's stellar night and another great shooting night from Ben McLemore. The reserve guard was 4-7 from three for 14 points in 23 minutes. D'Antoni, who is known for his playoff-shortened bench, stuck with just three reserves including Green, McLemore and Austin Rivers. When Westbrook returns, he could add a fourth, but, so far, this group is doing just fine.
Playoff James Harden.
The narrative around the former MVP wilting in the playoffs is mostly myth, tied to his team's losses. In reality, he has been his usual brilliant self averaging 27 points and nearly 7 assists. On Tuesday, he went off for 37 points on just 22 shots including 6-13 from beyond the arc. At halftime, Charles Barkley said Harden is the best isolation player ever. He's not wrong (for once).
Russell Westbrook's moth problem.
Westbrook is one of the more stylish players in the NBA, but, um, what the hell is up with this shirt? You might want to put some moth balls out.
We almost felt bad for the OKC reserve guard who went 3-12 from the field including 0-5 from three. At certain moments, he honestly looked terrified to be on the floor. The German player who is in his seventh season in the NBA is widely regarded as this year's Sixth Man of the Year. He certainly didn't look like it on Tuesday.
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Traditional playoff pace.
While D'Antoni might favor a shortened rotation like coaches of old, he certainly doesn't consider the traditional slow-it-down pace of NBA yesteryear to be a style of play worth trying. The Rockets put up 52 three pointers, hitting 20. They played with a frenetic pace on both ends of the floor and it paid off big time. If there were any questions if the Rockets would change their style of play in the postseason, those were put to rest in Game 1.
In fairness, Paul nearly had a triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists, but half his points came in middle of the fourth quarter when he pulled the Thunder within 13, but never really threatened the Rockets' lead. With no Westbrook on the floor, this was Paul's chance to control the game, but the contrast between his slower style of game and the Rockets overdrive only served to underscore the reason the Rockets made the swap of Paul for Westbrook in the offseason.