For all of his talents, no one was certain what kind of effort the Rockets would get from James Harden in an elimination game. He’s either really good or mostly absent. No in between.
Harden never got going offensively on Wednesday. He struggled from the outside (1-for-9 on 3-pointers). The easy baskets he feasted on earlier in this series weren’t as plentiful in Game 7.
It looked like another game where Harden faded away when his team needed him most. So naturally, it was Harden -- not hitting a clutch shot -- but blocking a potential game-winning 3-pointer from a suddenly-clutch shooting Lu Dort that sealed Houston’s series win in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
A series-winning defensive play by James Harden. Just as we expected.
First Takeaway: What Was That First Half?
We’ve seen our share of statistical anomalies in this series. The Rockets, who famously missed 27 consecutive 3-point attempts against the Golden State Warriors during the 2018 Western Conference Finals, set the NBA playoff record for most 3-point attempts (56) in their Game 3 win over OKC on Aug. 20.
Fifty-six 3-pointers in a game doesn’t nearly come close to the oddity developing in the first half of Wednesday’s game.
Here is a snapshot of the first halves Dort and Harden experienced. Note the scoring and the true shooting percentage in the tweet below.
Up was down, in was out, role player became superstar and vice versa. These numbers told us that nothing made sense in the world anymore.
Similar to Houston’s barrage of missed 3-pointers two years ago against the Warriors, these performances are based on true events from another Game 7, the most volatile and weird game in any playoff series.
Second Takeaway: The Internet Loves Lu Dort
Dort had Thunder fans scratching their eyeballs out with his errant 3-point shooting earlier in this series, but he went temporarily insane and turned into Ray Allen in Game 7.
His bricks became swishes and the internet went wild for the Thunder’s burgeoning rookie, who scored 30 points and tallied six made 3-pointers.
The fine folks at Velveeta acknowledged Dort's genius.
The Thunder's Twitter account played along.
CBS Sports’ NBA account went through a temporary name change during Wednesday night’s festivities.
Image Provided By: @CBSSportsNBA on Twitter
According to the Thunder, Dort's 30 points is the most ever for an undrafted rookie in an NBA playoff game since the draft was introduced in 1947.
Imagine all the basketball that's left to be played in Dort’s NBA career. He’s already a stout defender. As soon as he learns how to gracefully Mack truck his way to the hoop, the world will be his and his alone.
Third Takeaway: Critiquing The Last Play Of OKC’s Season
It’s fair to say that both the Rockets and the Thunder were playing tight down the stretch. Players were playing not to lose. It made for the intense basketball we all enjoy coming down to the wire in a Game 7.
However, on the last play of OKC’s season, Thunder coach Billy Donovan made an interesting play call. After calling two timeouts in the final seconds, Donovan devised a play where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would inbound the ball. Right off the bat, that feels like, looks like and is the wrong idea.
SGA has done quite a bit of growing up himself in these playoffs. He knocked down a corner 3-pointer that put OKC in a position to win late in regulation of Game 3. Gilgeous-Alexander proved he wasn’t afraid of coming up big in crunch time again Wednesday when he nailed another corner 3-pointer to give the Thunder the lead with under two minutes to play.
SGA, Paul and Schroder had to be automatic non-inbounders regardless of what play Donovan throws together.
Considering the Thunder had to manage 2.6 seconds to foul Houston twice (OKC did), hope Houston misses the second of two free throws (HOU did), grab the miss (OKC did), call timeout and draw up a play that would, at worst, force overtime and, at best, win the entire series, there is no scenario where one of OKC’s best scorers should be inbounding a pass when the team has 1.1 seconds to get a good shot off.
If the design was for Steven Adams to get the pass and then hand it off back to the shooter, there is a pretty close to zero probability that the two pairs of hands exchanging the basketball will get its desired result – a good look at the basket – with, again, 1.1 seconds remaining.
There was no chance Donovan’s plan was going to work.
Now, it’s time to reflect. Will this team be back for another run next season? That’s hard to say. While Billy Donovan should be lauded for bringing this team together and turning in one of the best coaching jobs of the NBA season, his contract is up. Who knows if he’ll be back. Same goes for Danilo Gallinari, who, himself, has arrived at the end of an expiring contract. And can Chris Paul be good at 36 like he was at 35?
These are the questions general manager Sam Presti must answer. This season’s Thunder team was fun to watch, but what will be the best course of action for Oklahoma City to continue its upward trajectory?