"I've done a lot a basketball in my lifetime, but I don't think I've seen as hectic a finish as that one." Rockets broadcaster Bill Worrell, who, for the record, has seen a LOT of basketball games, was not kidding. In an incredibly weird season, this game seven win for the Rockets 104-102 over the Oklahoma City Thunder was absolutely bizarre.
There was terrible offense down the stretch by both teams when neither could seemingly make even a layup. There were absolutely wacko calls by everyone's favorite official all game. There was a guy who played in the G-League this season working his way into the record books. The only really important fact was that the Rockets prevailed and will advance to the Western Conference semi-finals to face the Lakers. Before we get to that, let's take a look at some winners and losers.
Say what you will about the "smallball experiment," Covington is an incredibly valuable piece to the Rockets puzzle. He was their best distance shooter on Wednesday, hitting 6-11 from beyond the arc for 21 points, but he was also a terrific defender with three blocks and three steals. Adding Covington to the mix has absolutely made this team better at both ends of the floor and he was a difference maker Wednesday.
If someone told you before Game 7 that Dort, a G-leaguer earlier this year who was left wide open because he couldn't hit an outside shot much of the series, would score 30 points and hit six threes while James Harden scored only 17 on 1-9 from downtown, how much would you have guessed the Rockets lost by? Dort matched Lebron James and Kobe Bryant as the only three players to score 25 points in a Game 7 under the age of 21. He was absolutely smothering on defense the entire series, but his offense gave him a completely new dimension and the Rockets were not ready.
James Harden, defender
For all his struggles on Wednesday (we'll get to those shortly), Harden, like the rest of his teammates, was a tough defender last night. He had two blocks and three steals and, overall, just solid defense all night. But his most impressive play of the game, typically reserved for a step back three, was a block of Dort with just seconds remaining in the game. Dort fired up a three and Harden swiped it. More impressively, when the ball came down, Dort tried to throw it off Harden out of bounds, but the Beard quickly did the near splits in mid air to avoid contact. It was the play of the game and it was Harden doing it on defense.
When they are hitting shots, this team can absolutely crush an opponent. We saw Eric Gordon find the range along with Covinton when Harden was missing. But, what allows them to stay in games even when they aren't shooting well is their defense. Scrambling and scrapping all over the floor, they are turnover forcing machines, at their best getting out on breaks and converting easy baskets. Unlike Rockets teams of the past, which struggled overall when their shots weren't falling, this team can lock you down defensively, offense be damned (and it was for much of the fourth quarter of game seven).
ATT Sportsnet Broadcast
This is not to throw any hate in the direction of Worrell or color commentator, Matt Bullard. They were outstanding as always, made even more impressive by the fact that they are broadcasting from Toyota Center while the game is in Orlando. But, in crunch time, ATT had some fairly significant issues. First, out of nowhere with under a minute left they switched to the Spanish feed. Then, on the literal last possession of the game, the entire feed froze. Only a very quick switch to ESPN's coverage allowed us to catch the last play. Of course, now the season is over for coverage on the regional network. Maybe they can figure it out in the offseason.
When Paul ripped off eight points early in the fourth quarter, Rockets Twitter went off the rails, fully expecting a Rockets meltdown. And as good as OKC has been in the clutch this year, and Paul in particular, that just didn't materialize. Paul ended up with a triple double: 19 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. But he also had six turnovers and was a -5 on the floor. He missed critical shots down the stretch, which must have been particularly tough given he was playing his former teammates. He helped carry a young team much further than anyone thought, which is commendable, but he came up short when it mattered most.
James Harden, close out game player
The narrative on Harden as a guy who doesn't show up when it counts won't suddenly change after this game. The most lasting image of him might be that block on Dort, but his absolutely brutal play on the offensive end — terrible badly missed threes in the fourth quarter — will bolster arguments by his critics that he can't win with everything on the line. It was also in contrast to Russell Westbrook, who plays like he has been shot out of a cannon, for better or worse. The Rockets won and Harden had the signature play, but his detractors only have more reason to doubt the greatness of number 13.
While watching the game, the question popped up, "Who does Scott Foster play for?" Given his impact on the game, it was a reasonable question from a bystander not paying much attention to the game. In their last 17 games, Harden is 0-8 when Foster officiates and Paul is 0-9. Those include games played together. Wednesday was not really an exception for the demonstrative official who blew multiple whistles from across the court that on replay were clearly wrong. He nearly cost the Rockets the game calling a foul on Harden while the ball was out of bounds despite OKC having already called a timeout. The NBA officiating can be brutal, but the league really needs to look into Foster specifically. He has been and remains one of the worst officials in the league.