We waited and waited and waited. Now, he’s back.
Rockets guard Russell Westbrook had quite a bit of rust (Russ-t?) to shake off on Saturday (3-for-13 shooting in 24 minutes), but his presence during Game 5 was undoubtedly a morale boost for a reeling Rockets club.
First Takeaway: Harden Was Choosy And Efficient
Thunder rookie guard Lu Dort has forced the Rockets to get creative in order for James Harden to have clean looks at the basket. Houston’s plan for Game 5? Screen Dort until the buzzer sounds.
Harden went 6-for-7 from the field against Dort on Saturday night. Four of Harden’s makes were aided by a variety of screens aimed at preventing the defensive stalwart the space to derail the MVP finalist like he had in recent games.
The Rockets had success screening Dort in spurts earlier in the series, but they had no reservations running to the well over and over in Game 5.
Second Takeaway: A Costly Ejection
Dennis Schroder has been the biggest reason why the Thunder roared back to tie the series earlier this week. After OKC managed just 14 points in the opening quarter, Schroder morphed into the super reserve that he is when he scored 16 in the second quarter to pull the Thunder within three at the break.
Another familiar theme in this series is Houston starting the third quarter firing on all cylinders. On Saturday, Houston’s three-point halftime lead ballooned to 20. Oklahoma City had no answer.
Then, this happened.
During a play like this, it is important to remember that the referees will make their judgments based on the videotape.
The referees neither have the capability nor the time to perform brain scans and read the minds of Schroder or P.J. Tucker at the scorer’s table. If they did, a) that would be incredible science and b) we would righteously complain more than we already do about video review.
Based on the videotape, Schroder tapped Tucker in an uncomfortable part of the male anatomy. Based on the videotape, Tucker headbutted Schroder in a retaliatory act. Both were assessed flagrant fouls and were ejected from the game. This was the correct call.
Whatever small hope the Thunder had for a comeback win followed Schroder to the OKC locker room.
Third Takeaway: The Elephant In The Room
I don’t think we discuss the effects of players living their entire lives inside the Orlando bubble nearly enough. Certainly, us non-professional athletes can relate. Every one of us have had to pause (or are still paused) and rework our lives in order to stay inside for an extended period of time.
Staying in a confined area, however, does not close anyone off from our own personal problems or the rest of the world’s problems.
Former Thunder and current Clippers forward Paul George opened up this week on his experiences living in the bubble. George didn’t feel like himself. Unfortunately, his feelings translated to the basketball floor. Via ESPN:
"It was just a little bit of everything," George later explained when asked what he meant. "I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Just being locked in here. I just wasn't there. I checked out.
"Games 2, 3, 4, I wasn't there. I felt like I wasn't there. Shout-out to the people that were in my corner, that gave me words. They helped big time, help get me right, [get] me back in great spirits. I can't thank them enough."
The police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was another reminder to players that society’s ills do not go away in the bubble. The shooting especially affected Black players, who make up a majority of the NBA.
One of the players’ goals was to emphasize and underscore the specific instances of police violence against Black Americans when play resumed.
These athletes possess other-worldly abilities and, at the same time, are all flesh and blood like the rest of us.
Speaking of other-worldly, that’s the kind of effort the Thunder will need to push this series to a seventh and deciding game.
Game 6 is set to tip at 8 p.m. Monday.