Tramel: How defense saved OKC Thunder in Game 4 rally vs. Rockets? Lu Dort 'is special'
James Harden seemed on a mission. Maybe he read all the press clippings and heard all the plaudits directed at Thunder defensive phenom rookie Lu Dort. In the first quarter, Harden didn’t seem capable of missing.
Harden made five of six shots, scored 15 points and seemed quite capable of a 60-point game Monday afternoon in the NBA bubble of Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Then in the third quarter, Harden’s teammates caught fire. Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, Harden, Gordon again, Harden again, Gordon again, P.J. Tucker and finally Danuel House Jr.
Eight straight 3-pointers went in for Houston, and the Thunder seemed cooked by the Rockets’ red glare. The Thunder trailed 86-71 midway through the third quarter, and winning via shootout seemed the only path to victory in Game 4 of this Western Conference playoff series.
But a funny thing about 3-pointers. There’s a reason they give you an extra point for a basket launched from beyond the arc. They’re not always easy to make.
Over the next 18 game minutes, Houston fired up 23 deep balls. Only three went in.
And the Thunder inexplicably left the arena a winner, a 117-114 decision that makes this series 2-2 and has the Rockets looking tired and reeling.
A Houston offense known for fireworks scored 18 points in 16½ minutes, a defense crackdown that goes alongside some of the best in Thunder history.
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“That was crazy, to tell you the truth,” said Chris Paul, who kept a calm head when the third-quarter blitz hit. “They came out, wham, wham, wham.”
But the Thunder regrouped, didn’t lose its head on offense and stepped up the defensive intensity.
Dennis Schröder, the offensive hero with 30 points, said the Thunder stepped up its rotations. Especially getting to the corners to make things tougher on the Rockets who live via the shorter 3-point shot.
“We did a great job there, just scrambling, and not giving them open shots,” Schröder said.
It’s not like OKC won this game with great offense. Until six foul shots in the final 20 seconds, the Thunder had scored 13 points in nine minutes. That’s losing basketball.
But the Thunder’s defense was ferocious. In the first 6½ minutes of the fourth quarter, the Rockets scored six points, both on Covington long balls.
Give Dort credit. An obviously motivated Harden took Dort to the woodshed in the first quarter, and Dort got his fifth foul in the first 23 seconds of the fourth quarter.
But Billy Donovan mostly stayed with Dort, who played 10 minutes in the fourth quarter and stayed glued to Harden.
“Lu is special,” Paul said. “Unbelievable how he accepts the challenge. He had to listen to me, when he had five fouls, I said, ‘you can’t get a sixth. Not that you shouldn’t, you can’t get a sixth.”
Rookies, CP3 said, “lot times, they play tentative. I don’t know. Just one of those guys that deserves to be here. I’m glad to see him having success.”
The Rockets seemed gassed by the fourth quarter. Steven Adams has been pounding on them, and Paul plays relentlessly, and even Schröder is fired up about defense. Now you’ve got Dort, who didn’t even melt when embarrassed early by Harden.
This Thunder team is identified by two main traits — clutch play, and the ability to rally from huge deficits. We saw them both on display Monday.
“There’s so many possessions in an NBA game and there’s so much time, and teams are playing so fast, leads that seem really really difficult to climb, are certainly obtainable,” Billy Donovan said.
“There’s going to be these ebbs and flows. We’ve got to stay the course and play to our identity. They kind of got in a flurry, (but) I thought our guys’ effort and energy to get out there was great.”
Who knows how this series will go. Russell Westbrook could return and change the entire complexion of the duel.
But the Thunder indeed is playing to its identity. Which gives OKC a chance to knock off the Rockets.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.