Carlson: OKC Thunder 'just wanted to fight' in wild OT win vs. Rockets
The Thunder knew Saturday was a must win. Knew it as soon the final buzzer sounded Thursday. Knew it as soon as the Rockets took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven playoff series.
Teams, after all, don't recover from 3-0 deficits.
So, Saturday became make or break for Oklahoma City.
But the crazy thing is, winning became even more urgent as Game 3 progressed. The Thunder was playing its best ball of the series. Solid defense. Attacking offense. This was much closer to the kind of team we've seen much of the season.
The Thunder had to capitalize.
Thunder 119, Rockets 107.
On a night that the pressure was at its highest, the Thunder delivered.
“We just wanted to fight,” Thunder point man Chris Paul said after the game. “We know how tough it is coming back from down 3-0, so we wanted to fight tonight, and I think that’s what they did.”
Even with that tenacity, the Thunder still needed some late-game craziness. A foul on Paul before an inbounds pass gave Houston a freebie free throw. A Houston inbounds pass that might’ve touched Steven Adams’ fingertips but the refs decided did not. A corner three from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And finally, a make and a miss from the free-throw line by Houston that sent the game to overtime.
Less than a minute into the extra frame, James Harden picked up his sixth foul, went to the bench and the Rockets sputtered.
What a game.
Wish it could've been at The Peake. Would've been fun to see and hear and feel that playoff energy.
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That's not to be, of course, but here's the good news for the Thunder: it showed it does have enough to beat the Rockets, something that seemed in serious doubt through the first two games of this series.
And frankly, those doubts had to be running through lots of minds Saturday. The Thunder did so much right for a big chunk of the game but were still finding it hard to get traction.
For starters, the Thunder had 13 free-throw attempts in the first quarter while the Rockets had none. That’s the kind of advantage Houston is accustomed to having.
Those guys toe the line more than Johnny Cash ever did.
But OKC was the aggressor early. The one creating contact. The one forcing the issue. That was a superb sign after significant stagnation in Game 1 and bouts of it in Game 2.
And still, the Thunder trailed at the end of the first quarter by six points.
But the Thunder continued showing positive signs in the second quarter, prime among them the defense Lu Dort was playing on Harden. The Thunder rookie was causing the league's leading scorer all kinds of consternation.
At one point late in the second quarter, Harden got a couple of high screens, and as soon as Dort got caught in it, Harden popped a shot. But Dort kept after it, somehow reaching around the screener and managing to get a hand in Harden's face each time.
He missed both shots.
He looked human.
Then, Dort went to the bench a couple minutes before halftime. I'm not sure why. I know guarding Harden is hard work, but Dort hasn't seemed to lack for energy. And frankly, after what Harden did with Dort on the bench, Billy Donovan may never let anyone else guard the Rocket superstar.
Harden scored nine points in less than two minutes. Drive. Drive. Step-back three. Breakaway layup. He should've added a free throw, converted an and-one and hit double digits in that stretch, but the free shot rimmed out.
For as good the defense had been on Harden, he scored 24 points in the first half.
And the Rockets led by six at halftime.
But the Thunder didn't panic. It kept finding driving lanes and attacking the basket on offense. It kept confounding the Rockets on defense. And eventually, the Thunder chipped away and found a way.
“Everybody trusting each other,” Thunder super sub Dennis Schroder said of how they did it. “Everybody telling each other to be confident in the shot. When we’ve got open threes, be confident about it.”
Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari said, “We knew that we had to fight for 48 minutes. To win against them, we have to go 48 minutes, and this is the first game where we were locked in most of the game.”
OKC wasn't perfect. Too many missed free throws (11). Too many turnovers (15).
“Even though every moment wasn’t great,” Donovan said, “I thought our guys really kept competing and fighting and battling the whole time through.”
On a night the Thunder could've panicked, it didn't.
On a night OKC had to find a way to win, it did.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.