So close and yet so far. The Rockets were about as close as you can come to pulling off the upset in Oklahoma City Wednesday night. The Thunder were fumbling all over themselves and missing shots. The Rockets were stroking it and rolling.
Of course, they were down 15, but their furious fourth-quarter rally gave them the lead, and after a Carlos Delfino three-pointer, it appeared they might pull off a shocker. The Thunder, however, would not be denied and notched a three-point win to take a 2-0 lead in the best of seven series, which visits Houston Saturday.
Unlike game one when the Rockets fell early and then again starting at the end of the first half, this was a close game throughout. Though the shooting percentages were still relatively low and they had 16 turnovers, the game was close thanks to a HUGE rebounding edge (57-40) and a quirky change to the starting lineup by Coach Kevin McHale.
McHale decided to go small against the Thunder and it paid off. He sat Greg Smith and started the all-point guard backcourt of Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley. Beverley has been steadily earning playing time throughout the season and is yet another of GM Daryl Morey's scrap-heap finds -- he was playing in a Russian league when he was snatched up by Morey. The youngster did not disappoint with 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
Unfortunately, Lin went down with a chest contusion that tightened up on him during the intermission. He missed the entire second half and is questionable for game three, which raises the question: With Beverley outplaying Lin, what impact will this have on his playing time moving forward?
James Harden, who shot just 6-19 in game one, broke out with 36 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, but he also had 6 turnovers. Still, he became the go-to guy for the Rockets and led them all night. But even that wasn't quite enough. Big shots down the stretch from the Thunder, missed free throws by the Rockets (including Harden) and a couple of mistakes that can be chalked up to inexperience were the difference.
The glaring weakness for the Rockets is not inexperience or missed shots, it's defense. Harden is going to have to dramatically improve on that end of the floor if he intends to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the game's greats. Far too often, he stabs at the ball as players blow by him. Granted, he is asked to do a tremendous amount for the Rockets and he played 45 minutes Wednesday night, but if the Rockets are unable to improve from one of the more undisciplined defensive teams in the league, they will continue to struggle, particularly against great teams like OKC.
Heading back to Houston, the Thunder can complete the sweep, but if Wednesday proved anything, it is that the Rockets can make a game of it. Winning is a different story.