Rockets 113, Thunder 109 - Nene's Energy Gives Rockets Commanding Series Lead

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Another game, another start for the Rockets filled with turnovers, missed threes, and, perhaps most frustrating of all, a total lack of urgency. For the third straight game, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to build a double-digit lead in the first quarter by being completely disruptive defensively. Despite Houston committing five turnovers and only shooting 30% from the field, the Rockets managed to close the first quarter on a 7-0 run and escape with just a four-point deficit (26-22).

Houston’s defense had really started to buckle down towards the end of the first, and that continued to start the second as OKC failed to score for nearly five minutes. This allowed the Rockets to cut the lead to just one point (32-31) before Eric Gordon drew a technical foul for complaining to an official. His complaint was valid as he drove to the basket and took a body blow from Enes Kanter without the benefit of a foul call. It wasn’t the first time in this game that happened, and definitely not the first time for Gordon in this series. Normally a quiet guy on the floor, Gordon let his frustration show and earned the tech.

The Rockets finally started to catch some semblance of a rhythm offensively towards the end of the first half, but they hit only 28.6% (4/14) of their three-point attempts. OKC’s stingy defense managed to record an unreal 14 blocks, and Russell Westbrook dazzled with a first-half triple double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists). Still, the Rockets went into halftime once again down just four points (58-54), thanks to a big half from Nene (14 points, six rebounds) and Trevor Ariza and Gordon making the only contributions from beyond the arc.

Rockets fans: “The Rockets can’t possibly get off to a worse start than they did in the first half.”

The Rockets: “Hold my beer…”

It didn’t seem possible for the Rockets to start a half any worse than they had in basically every first half in this series, but the Rockets were on a mission to prove that wrong. James Harden opened the third quarter with a missed three, two turnovers, and a general malaise that infected the rest of the team. Thanks to horrid offense and five turnovers in the first four minutes, the Thunder managed to build a 14-point lead (70-56).

Fortunately for Rockets fans, this team has significantly more firepower and mental toughness than last year’s squad and the Rockets responded with an 8-0 run to cut the lead to two points (70-68). Nene continued to be a huge positive for the Rockets on both ends of the floor. In addition to hitting all eight of his field goal attempts up to that point, he protected the rim and, more impressively, defended Westbrook extremely well on the few times he was switched onto the likely MVP. The Rockets yet again were down by just four points at the end of the period (77-73).

Houston’s energy was noticeably improved to start the fourth quarter, and it seems they finally found a sense of urgency. A pair of threes from Ryan Anderson and Patrick Beverley, both of whom had been struggling mightily in this game, tied the game, and Lou Williams followed with an and-one conversion that gave Houston an 82-79 lead. This prompted OKC coach Billy Donovan to quickly substitute Westbrook back in the game; James Harden was soon to follow.

The teams exchanged the lead back-and-forth for the majority of the period, but the Rockets managed to build a five-point lead using a strategy that hasn’t been seen much in the NBA this year – Hack-A-Shaq. The victim in this scenario was Andre Roberson, who is the second-worst free throw shooter in the NBA this season (42.3%) and had missed every postseason free throw coming into this game. By repeatedly intentionally fouling Roberson, the Rockets managed to build a five-point lead (100-95) and get OKC’s best perimeter defender off of the court.

What followed was… interesting. As ESPN color commentator and former Rockets head coach – Jeff Van gundy – put it, “This is absolutely awful basketball from both teams down the stretch.” He couldn’t have been more right.

After Harden hit a jumper with 41 seconds left to give the Rockets a 108-103 lead, the Rockets managed to force two missed threes and haul in a rebound. Instead of holding the ball to run the clock, Harden inexplicably rushed to the basket and forced a turnover. Steven Adams recovered the ball and was immediately fouled by Nene. Adams sank the first free throw and, after a brief conversation with Westbrook, intentionally missed the second. The ball bounced hard off the back rim and Adams rebounded his own missed, passed the ball to Westbrook behind him, who then hit a ridiculously deep three to cut Houston’s lead to one (108-107) with 18 seconds left.

Then, OKC fails to foul immediately and Houston managed to push the ball up the floor. Ariza found Nene wide open under the basket, who made a layup while getting fouled. He sank the free throw to give Houston a 111-107 lead. On the next possession, Westbrook once again missed a three, but Alex Abrines tipped the ball back in. At this point, all Houston had to do to secure victory was inbound the ball and make free throws. Eric Gordon made this more difficult than it had to be by throwing a lead pass to Harden that was nearly intercepted and deflected back to him. He nailed the two free throws to finally put this ugly game away.

James Harden was a major story in this game because of how poorly he played. After three dazzling games to start this series he only scored 16 points on 31.3% shooting, missing all seven of his three-point attempts. He also committed seven turnovers, many of which were unforced. Postgame, it was revealed that Harden was hindered by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3. Harden has rolled his ankle more than any other player I’ve seen and generally walks it off, but it clearly affected him in this game.

The Rockets head back to Houston for Game 5 on Tuesday night.

Game Ball

This is a segment of the game recaps that will give the proverbial game ball to a player that proved to be most valuable to the Rockets on a given night. This award won’t necessarily go to the player that puts up the best numbers, but to the player that made the greatest impact on the team – tangible or intangible.

The fourth game ball of the postseason goes to Nene.

With Harden playing hurt and the Rockets continuing to wage war on their three-point percentages, it looked like the Rockets were going to lay down in Game 4. Nene had other plans, providing the only sustained energy throughout this game. The Rockets needed every one of his 28 points and 10 rebounds, plus his incredible defensive effort. Nene protected the rim and, on several occasions, shut Russell Westbrook down. Yes, that seriously happened. Nene has been an incredible asset for the Rockets all season long, and this play sums up just how much his energy benefits the team…

Thanks to Nene, the Houston Rockets now have a 3-1 lead in this series.


Uh oh.

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