ORLANDO, Florida- The 2020 NBA Playoffs fired up for the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, but the anticipation for Thunder fans was quickly shattered by the Houston Rockets’ electric performance despite being without a familiar face to OKC, Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder battled stagnant offense, lackadaisical defensive pressure and too slow of a pace to fall to the Rockets in Game 1 at 123-108.
Head Coach for the Thunder Billy Donovan spoke on his team’s lack of pace saying the Rockets’ offense wasn’t what kept the Thunder trailing, but rather the weakness at the point of attack is what the Thunder needed to strengthen.
“Their 20 made 3’s are just what they made,” Donovan said. “They were able to find open players and generate a lot of open looks because we have to do a better job of containing the basketball off the dribble.”
Both teams had missing key components to their starting lineups with Westbrook out for the Rockets due to a strained right quad, and Lu Dort ruled as inactive with a sprained right knee.
Terrance Ferguson slid into the starting 3-spot for the Thunder, and with the Rockets bringing in dominant offensive performers like James Harden, Coach Donovan got crafty with matchups that led guys like Ferguson, Dennis Schröder and Andre Roberson to go to work defensively on Harden.
“I wanted to see what Andre would look like out there,” Donovan said. “I wanted to gather information and see how he’d do. Andre’s played against him a lot.”
No Westbrook? No problem for the Rockets.
James Harden rattled the Thunder’s defense hitting 6 of his 13 shots from downtown, splitting through defensive pressure to make silky finishes at the rim, and going 7-8 from the free throw line.
“Listen, he’s [Harden] going to make some of those shots,” Donovan said. “We cannot foul him, and we did a couple of times today, especially at the 3-point line. We can’t foul – That’s the biggest thing.”
Harden went on to finish the game leading all scorers with 37 points shooting 55 percent from the floor.
Danilo Gallinari brought the heat for the Thunder, especially in the second half, finishing with 29 points on 9-17 shooting, 2-5 from beyond the arc.
Gallinari, Chris Paul (20 pts) and Steven Adams (17 pts) were the only three Thunder players to finish in double digits combining for 66 of the Thunder’s 108 points.
“We knew their [Rockets] plan was to switch a lot,” Gallinari said. “We need to be better about going up and down the floor and picking up the pace. We have to play Thunder basketball.”
One quiet performance of the night was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the young point guard went cold on offense finishing 2-8 from the floor, 1-3 from deep, and picking up 9 total points and only one assist.
Despite having a height advantage over the Rockets, fouls also played a role in putting the Thunder in tough situations and forcing Billy Donovan to toss around rotations more frequently than he had hoped for.
“You have to go into it with the situation you’ve been dealt,” Donovan said. “Nerlens [Noel] picked up three fouls, so we were forced to go with Mike [Muscala] who gave us a little stretch to the floor in shooting. Foul troubles added more guys.”
Chris Paul fell one assist shy of a triple-double with 10 rebounds and 9 assists to go along with his 20 points, and his message for moving forward remained simple: One game at a time.
“Just stay with it,” Paul said. “It’s one game at a time. In the playoffs, you can’t get too high or too low. Keep learning and stay focused.”
The Thunder falls to 0-1 in the playoffs and will be back in action Thursday, Aug. 20, at 2:30 p.m. CST for Game 2 against the Rockets.