HOUSTON, Texas — For the ninth straight year, the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-12) were playing on Christmas Day. For a franchise that has only been around in Oklahoma since 2008, it has reached tradition status.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Houston Rockets (18-15) spoiled that tradition.
Oklahoma City started strong but could not outlast the Rockets, feeding off of a loud and energetic crowd in the Toyota Center. After a 60-point first half performance, the Thunder’s Christmas spirit vanished while James Harden, Clint Capela and Houston found life.
“I thought we did some really good things in the first half,” Billy Donovan said after the game. “Second half we didn’t shoot the ball as well. That’s going to happen.”
The Thunder only managed 48 points in the second half. The balanced attack on both sides of the floor from Oklahoma City was absent, allowing the Rockets to get hot.
Harden started cooking at the end of the third quarter. While the Thunder made some timely buckets in the third quarter to quell a potential large Rockets run, Harden’s passing and shot-making proved too much.
The reigning-MVP scored 41 points on an inefficient 35 shots. Oklahoma City’s barrage of Terrance Ferguson, Paul George and Jerami Grant made Harden work for it.
While Harden will deservingly receive the lion’s share of credit for leading the Rockets to their second straight win since Chris Paul went down to injury, the culprit to this Thunder loss lies on the boards.
Oklahoma City allowed too many second chance opportunities, particularly to Capela. The Rockets’ big man grabbed 23 rebounds, with 10 coming off the offensive glass.
“It’s a pretty tough situation,” Steven Adams said in the locker room. “Capela is a great offensive rebounder and a great rebounder in general.”
Time after time, the Thunder’s initial defensive stand was great. With Houston’s 17 offensive rebounds as a team, they routinely burned Oklahoma City with put-back dunks or a back breaking three.
Disappointing for the Thunder considering how well they played in the first half.
Oklahoma City led 60-52 heading into the locker room thanks to defense and superb shooting efficiency in the paint. With a 13-0f-15 performance in the paint in the second quarter, it appeared as if the Thunder were going to bully Houston down low.
After the break, a spark from Danuel House, Jr. in the form of two quick threes ignited the crowd and helped put Harden; the Rockets offense, in rhythm.
“The “Junior” guy,” Adams said in reference to House, Jr. “He did a great job of crashing the paint and getting them on a run.”
Despite the lapses in the third quarter, Oklahoma City still led heading into the fourth. Russell Westbrook, who finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, was shooting fairly well from the field and the foul line.
But the damage was done. Houston had started to play downhill in the third while the Thunder were trying to hold on for dear life. It was impossible to reestablish momentum.
The final backbreaker? Newly acquired Austin Rivers hit two huge threes late in the fourth to keep Oklahoma City’s comeback hopes at too great a distance.
“He’s a good player,” Donovan said of Rivers. “Anytime you can come in with a clean slate it’s always good for a player’s confidence.”
The Thunder will now enjoy a few days off until going back on the road for a Friday night game against the Phoenix Suns.