Despite not having three integral team members, the Thunder adapted on the fly, got creative and leaned on one another throughout a 48-minute battle of wills. With a ferocious fourth quarter salvo, OKC rallied from down 17 points to win by getting points on 12 of its final 15 possessions.
The dominoes were stacked the wrong direction for the Thunder before the game even started.
Third-year guard Terrance Ferguson, typically the man assigned to guard Houston Rockets All-NBA guard James Harden, was out. Just minutes before tip-off, Nerlens Noel was a late scratch due to ankle soreness. Then, less than 90 seconds into the game, Steven Adams was clobbered by Houston’s Clint Capela on a rebound, forcing the big Kiwi to miss the remainder of the game with a sprained ankle.
Yet still, despite playing an unorthodox trio of Mike Muscala, Danilo Gallinari and Deonte Burton at center for large stretches of the game, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club managed to out-rebound the Rockets.
“It was really an amazing job by those guys considering the fact that we were playing so shorthanded across the frontline,” said Donovan.
Sealing off enough defensive stops to hang in there, the Thunder parried Houston’s runs throughout the first half, including an 18-2 uppercut to span the end of the first and start of the second quarters.
Behind some incredible shot-making and gamesmanship from Chris Paul and a tenacious defensive effort by rookie two-way guard Lu Dort, the Thunder stayed within striking distance heading into the fourth quarter.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 20, 2020
Much of the reason can be attributed to Dort, who sliced around attempted screens by Rockets players, darting to beat Harden to the spot and keeping him out of the lane as much as possible. Harden still got his points, and still went to the free throw line 13 times but shot just 9-of-29 (31.0 percent) from the field including a miserable 1-of-17 (5.9 percent) on three-pointers for the game.
“We, positionally, did a nice job in being where we’re supposed to be,” said Donovan.
“I just went through the scouting report and I was just trying to my job at the end of the day,” said Dort. “I know he is going to hit some tough shots, so really I was just trying to make it hard for him, be there, contest his shots, stay on my feet and stay in front of him.”
Despite being held to just 14 points in the third quarter, the Thunder’s spirit was never derailed in this one. Down as many as 17 in the second half and by 15 at 100-85 with 6:53 to go, this one was teetering on a blowout, and many teams in OKC’s position might have packed it in and chalked it up to a night where tough luck and injuries got in the way.
Not this squad.
After Muscala won a jump ball over Capela, point guard Dennis Schröder attacked off the bounce and finished at the rim to give the Thunder some life. On the next possession after a scrambling defensive sequence, the Thunder found Danilo Gallianri for a three-pointer to cut the lead to just 10, sending in a small ripple through the crowd. The Italian forward had struggled through three quarters shooting just 4-of-15, but in the fourth he turned it on with 12 blistering points on 3-of-4 shooting, all from behind the arc.
Gallinari knocked down a second-straight three, then Shai Gilgeous Alexander attacked in transition for a hanging floater before Harden crashed into Gallinari on a three-point attempt. The 90 percent three-point shooter buried all three and suddenly, in less than two and a half minutes, the Thunder’s deficit was just two. That ripple turned into a full-on gasp when Gallinari received a swing-swing pass on the perimeter for his third three, tying the game at 101.
“We have to bring the energy back and play the right way, moving the ball and attacking the basket, be more aggressive and going to the basket, and that’s what we did,” said Gallinari.
One possession later, Gilgeous-Alexander drove and earned a trip to the free throw line where he gave the Thunder a 102-101 lead, its first advantage since midway through the second quarter. The teams traded buckets after that, but after Dort took a charge on Harden, Schröder then made a steal from the Houston guard that resulted in a Gilgeous-Alexander fast break dunk. Houston called a timeout down 106-105, setting up a final sequence of critical plays in the remaining 68 seconds of regulation.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 21, 2020
After former Thunder guard Russell Westbrook barreled into the lane and missed a running layup off the glass, the Thunder secured the rebound and had a chance to create some separation. Isolated at the top of the key against Harden, Schröder drove right to the elbow, planted his right foot then slipped a bounce pass backwards through his right leg back to his left hand. He hopped up off both sets of toes, rose over Harden and drained a 16-footer that put the Thunder up 110-107 with 28.1 seconds remaining.
DENNIS ICES IT pic.twitter.com/LAGjo3WGvp
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 21, 2020
The bucket not only gave the Thunder some breathing room to cap the massive 27-7 game-closing run, but also ensured OKC would have a chance to get the ball back in a two-for-one situation.
Schröder’s jumper capped a 17-point second half effort, on 7-of-11 shooting accompanied by four rebounds and three assists. For the night, the German lightning bolt scored 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including a 3-for-7 mark from three.
“We got three elite point guards on this team who can make decisions and read situations,” Schröder said after the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma. “In the second half I was just aggressive and tried to get my team back in this thing.”
Points scored by Chris Paul in the second quarter alone, a new career-high for the longtime veteran point guard. Paul scored 27 of his 28 points in the first half, carrying the Thunder through some challenging waters as Houston continued to score in waves. As OKC gave up 39 second quarter points, it was only Paul’s shot-making that kept the score close. Paul went 6-of-7 from the field in the period, knocking down three three-pointers and all five of his free throws in that frame.
“We always believe. We did a great job in the fourth quarter staying in front of Harden. Lu Dort, coming out of the G League did a great job and we finished it off.”–Dennis Schröder
“It’s fun playing like that, just leaning on each other.”–Chris Paul
The Thunder’s two-game road trip continues with a jaunt to the east coast, where it will square off with the Orlando Magic for the second time this season. The previous meeting came in early November as the Thunder won 102-94 in a defensive battle.
Despite fighting the injury bug, the Thunder is now 25-19 and now just two games behind the Rockets for the sixth seed in the Western Conference and just 5.5 games behind the second-seeded LA Clippers. OKC is also 5.5 games up on the San Antonio Spurs, who currently sit in the 9th spot in the West.