Tramel: If the Thunder must win, beating the Rockets is best
The Thunder’s 104-87 victory over the Rockets on Wednesday night was its best win of the year.
Not because Houston is a decent team.
Not because this was a dominating performance, with a lead as large as 30 in the fourth quarter.
Not because the Thunder played without its best player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
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Not because the Thunder also played without starter George Hill and all but nine minutes without starter Luguentz Dort, who suffered a knee injury.
Not because defense returned to the Thunder lexicon, with the Rockets’ 3-point percentage (.261) was cut more than half from its lofty .538 in a Monday night Houston rout.
The Thunder’s victory was the best, because it came at the expense of the Rockets. Houston failing is a key component in the Oklahoma City rebuild.
The Thunder has Houston’s first-round pick in the 2021 draft, unless the Rockets’ selection comes in the first four of the draft. OKC also has future Rocket picks, but that’s a concern for another time. The 2021 Houston pick is a concern for this time, and that’s why beating the Rockets was important. Every little bit helps.
A few weeks ago, when James Harden was submarining the Houston season and the Rockets were 4-9, there was reason to worry. With that top-four lottery protection, the Thunder didn’t want Houston to fall too far. But the Rockets traded Harden, got about as good of a haul as you can get when trading a superstar and soon enough won six straight games, culminating in the 136-106 Monday rout of the Thunder.
But the short-handed Thunder brought the Rockets into splashdown mode. Kenrich Williams was the best player on the court. Yes, Kenrich Williams, with 19 points, one missed shot and enough hustle to shame anyone even named “Sparky.” Al Horford looked spry in outplaying Christian Wood. Darius Bazley snapped out of a slump. Hamidou Diallo kept scoring. Isaiah Roby inexplicably continued to produce.
You wondered if the Thunder even could function without Gilgeous-Alexander. It wasn’t smooth -- OKC committed a season-high 21 turnovers -- and rookie Theo Maledon looked a lot more rattled filling in for SGA than filling in for Hill. But still, the Thunder played with energy and purpose.
“The game of basketball, you’ve got to have a short memory,” Bazley said. “Taking losses like that and being able to put them behind you while taking the necessary lessons from them. We knew that (Monday) wasn’t our best brand of basketball. Going into this game, we just cleared our minds, had a solid day of practice. Everyone was on the same page that we needed to do a lot of things better.”
Give coach Mark Daigneault credit. His messages are getting through. The Thunder is in that delicate crevice of keeping accountability culture in place, even during a massive teardown/rebuild. Daigneault seems to be doing that.
This Wednesday game was won with Tuesday practice.
“We had really good carryover from the stuff we addressed yesterday (in practice) from the first game,” Daigneault said. “They really came in yesterday with a clean slate, wanted to learn. Obviously came out 0-0 tonight and earned a really good win.”
It helped that Houston was without star point guard John Wall, but Wall is no more important to the Rockets than is SGA to the Thunder. Plus OKC played without Hill and most of the game without Dort, who is in an offensive valley but remains one of the NBA’s best defenders. Pretty cool that the Thunder produced a defensive shutdown with Dort out.
“I think it’s a reflection of not really emotion, but non-emotion; the opposite,” Daigneault said of the transformation from getting torched by the same team 48 hours earlier. “The ability to get really lit up the other night, partially because of us and partially because of them … but to come in the next day with the clear head that our guys had. It’s such a skill as a team and as a player in the NBA, that’s as competitive of a league as it is, not to get too high or too low.
“Tonight’s game started with that mentality that everybody brought to the gym. It’s certainly a mentality that organizationally, we try to have. Consistent work every day. Pour into the process, don’t overreact to outcomes. Our guys did an unbelievable job with that yesterday.”
I’m like everyone else. Everytime the Thunder wins, I feel conflicted. Like it’s counter to the cause. OKC wants in the Cade Cunningham Derby, and the more losses the better, to increase the lottery chances.
But teams don’t tank. Organizations tank. Teams, they still try to win. Can’t very well tell the players not to win. So there’s something noble about a team, like the Thunder, going 9-11 in its first 20 games, when it was built to lose.
I mean, the Thunder a year ago was 8-12 after 20 games, and that’s with Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. That’s with Chris Paul’s eyes shooting flaming arrows at anyone who didn’t sell out for victory.
Of course, that Thunder team went 12-3 over its next 15 games and became a Western Conference force. This Thunder team has no shot at 12-3 and easily could go 3-12. So lottery damage isn’t something to worry about.
Don’t look now, but the entire league is bunched. COVID-19 has made the season quite unpredictable. Milwaukee is a disappointing 13-8 -- yet still has the NBA’s fifth-best record.
Same at the bottom. Only three teams stink -- Minnesota and Detroit, each 5-16, and Washington, 5-13. None seem likely to rise much. But look at it this way. The Timberwolves hit town this weekend for a back-to-back set against the Thunder. Should Minnesota sweep, the T-Wolves would trail OKC by just 2½ games.
Even if the Thunder putters around and finishes with the sixth- or seventh-worst record in the NBA, instead of the coveted first-, second- or third-worst, hope floats. The lottery odds have flattened. The worst three teams each have a 14 percent chance of landing the No. 1 draft pick. The sixth-worst team has a nine percent chance. Not a huge difference.
And the Thunder has two bites at the apple of the draft’s eye. OKC gets whichever it wants between Houston’s pick and Miami’s pick. The Rockets and Heat were NBA contenders a year ago, but both have slipped mightily. Miami is 7-14, with a rash of problems, some related to the pandemic and some not. Wednesday night, the Heat blew a big lead and lost to Washington.
Seems unlikely that both the Heat and the Rockets make the playoffs. Seems more likely the Thunder’s extra pick will be something around the 10th-best lottery odds. Put that with OKC’s own pick, do a little math and the Thunder almost surely will have a 50-50 chance at one of the top four picks.
Nothing wrong with that. The last time Sam Presti got the fourth overall pick, he took a flier on a UCLA project. Russell Westbrook.
Enough of that kind of dreaming. It’s too early. Just know that the Thunder’s lottery situation is just fine. Especially when the Thunder, if it absolutely must win a game, beats the Rockets.