Tramel: Chris Paul is right about the OKC Thunder's latest NBA Playoff loss. There are 'no moral victories'
Russell Westbrook stood in the Rocket bench area, his face covered by a mask. James Harden stood there, too, his face covered by a beard.
Neither covering concealed their smiles.
With their superstars on the bench early in the fourth quarter Thursday — Westbrook sidelined with a quad injury and Harden taking an extended rest — the Rockets bolted away from the Thunder and put a magical Oklahoma City season in jeopardy.
Houston belted the Thunder 111-98 in Game 2 of their Western Conference playoff series in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, taking a 2-0 series lead. The Thunder was reduced to consolation prizes for its disappearing offense.
"Way better," Danilo Gallinari said, comparing OKC's performance to Game 1.
"Headed in the right direction," Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.
But old pro Chris Paul knows better. The only direction this Thunder team is headed is straight to a bursting of its NBA bubble. "No moral victories," Paul said after one of the most discouraging performances of his career. The Thunder was outscored by 36 points during CP3's 37 minutes of court time. That's the third-worst plus/minus in Paul's career, which spans 1,123 games.
"I gotta do more," Paul said, but just exactly what can anybody do about Houston's roster and style advantage in this series.
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With no pick-and-roll offense — the Rockets don't allow it, with their switching defense — the Thunder is playing in lard. Credit the Thunder for producing a tremendous offense in the first half: 59 points, 50 percent shooting and just four turnovers. OKC had a six-point lead and seemed quite capable of making this series 1-1.
But then came a second half that will live in infamy.
Defensive whiz Lu Dort scored on a drive in the first minute of the third quarter — then the Thunder missed eight straight shots and went 12 possessions without a point. Houston took a 69-61 lead.
Paul opened the fourth quarter with a 17-foot jumper that gave OKC an 80-77 lead. Then the Thunder missed eight straight shots and had eight straight empty possessions.
The Rockets had a 94-80 lead and total command of this series.
"That cain't happen," Paul said.
But it did.
"It's going to be hard to play them and score 39 points in a second half," said Billy Donovan, who suggested a quicker pace would help and stagnation led to too many late-clock shots.
Steven Adams bullied the Rockets for four baskets in the first 13 minutes, then didn't get another shot the rest of the game.
Gilgeous-Alexander played great and finished with 31 points. His fellow scorers were just so-so — Gallinari, Schröder and Paul each shot from 40 percent to 41.7 percent — but the real difference in these teams is the supporting cast.
Houston has all kinds of guys producing. Ben McLemore and Jeff Green were outstanding in Game 1. In Game 2, Austin Rivers scored eight points in 63 seconds of the second quarter, Danuel House Jr. scored 14 second-half points and Green was good again, with three 3-pointers with Harden on the bench early in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder knows it can't rely on much bench production past Schröder. The Rockets know they can.
This was a disheartening defeat. The Thunder defense mostly was solid. OKC didn't foul much (Houston had 18 foul shots), the Rockets were mediocre from 3-point range (33.9 percent) and Dort did an amazing job on Harden. The Feared Beard had 21 points but made just five of 16 shots, and two of his makes came in the final few minutes, with Dort on the bench.
And still, the Rockets won easily. Houston is getting easier shots than is the Thunder, and Houston has much better shooters. That's a combination that spells defeat.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.