We knew for awhile that the Rockets would play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, so it gave us plenty of time to think about what could happen in a series. Now that it’s over, and the Rockets are headed to the Western Conference semifinals for the second time in three years, I have some final thoughts about what we witnessed over the last five games.
1. The Rockets won plenty of games this season where they didn’t shoot it well from behind the 3-point line, and head coach Mike D’Antoni stressed before the series that their shooting percentage doesn’t matter because they’ll still get their points, but for the Rockets to win a series against a good Western Conference team while shooting just a hair over 28 percent from long distance is pretty remarkable. Both Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley shot 41 percent from out there and Eric Gordon was a respectable 35.5 percent, but everyone: yikes. James Harden shot 24 percent, while Trevor Ariza finished at 19 percent, and his number is only that high because of a 3-for-5 outing in game four, the only game he drained a 3-pointer. Worst of all, Ryan Anderson made 3 of his 24 long distance attempts. OKC did everything it could to slow the Rockets 3-point attack, but they missed plenty of good looks.
2. How did the Rockets manage to score close to 113 points per game in this series? They got to the free throw line like crazy. Whistles are supposed to come less frequently in the playoffs, but that didn’t happen in this series. The Rockets actually attempted 7 more free throws per game in this series than they did in the regular season, with Harden’s attempts per game going from 10.9 to 14.6, and it helps that they shot 80 percent from the stripe.
3. The Williams trade saved the Rockets in this series. He stepped-up with late first quarter bursts multiple times in the five games, and having a guy that can get his own shot whenever he wants an invaluable skill against good playoff defenses.
4. The Rockets spent a lot of time talking about rebounding the past month and it paid off. Houston out-rebouded the NBA’s best rebounding team over the five games of this series, and they did almost as much damage on the offensive glass as their opponent. OKC had its moments in that aspect of the game, but the Rockets expected that, the key was surviving, and they more than did that.
5. Russell Westbrook is absolutely absurd, and it’s unfortunate that Rockets fans spent the series trying to tear the guy down because of an MVP race that already ended. Enjoy what Westbrook did because we’ve never and probably will never see anyone like him again.
6. Once Billy Donovan effectively iced Enes Kanter after game 1, OKC became a nightmare to try and score on. They’re long, athletic, and tough at almost every position. They foul too much, which might’ve won the Rockets the series, but while they may face better teams this postseason, the Rockets won’t face a more athletic team than Oklahoma City.
7. That being said, Billy Donovan’s big mistake in this series was effectively benching Enes Kanter after game 1. The Rockets torched him on the defensive end in game 1, and after playing him just eight minutes in the next game, the Thunder coach said Kanter should’ve played more in that game, but he didn’t alter his plan. Kanter played just 21 minutes the last 3 games of the series, and didn’t play the second half of game five after playing three minutes in the first. The Thunder scored .904 points per possession with Westbrook off the floor in the series and allowed 1.416. Even with Kanter on the floor, it’s hard to imagine them allowing more, but they certainly could’ve scored more. Donovan basically shelved a guy who scored over 14 points per game in the regular season in 21 minutes.
8. The Rockets can play better and they must in order to advance another round. They have to shoot it better, they have to get off to better starts, they have to take better care of the ball. Whoever the Rockets play in the West semis will be a better, more-balanced team than the one they just dispatched. They won’t be able to rely on Westbrook-less lineups to keep them afloat.