LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook stormed out of the practice gym. He then walked down the convention center hallway, bouncing a basketball loudly on the carpet floor.
Think Westbrook might feel a little stir-crazy?
But who could blame him? He has missed the past six games since aggravating his right quad on Aug. 11. The Rockets have ruled Westbrook out for Wednesday, when they play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round series, which is tied 2-2.
And it remains unclear if or when the Rockets’ medical staff will clear Westbrook to play.
“It’s day-to-day that he’s listed. Not going to rule anything out or rule anything in. We’ll see,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s close. We want to be a little careful. I understand the urgency, but they’ll make a good call. He’ll do the same.”
In the meantime, the Rockets have gotten used to playing without Westbrook. Below are a few developments on how their first-round playoff series has been impacted by his absence on the court:
More burden on James Harden
No longer can Harden rely on Westbrook to share scoring (27.2 points) and ball-handling duties (7.0 assists). So, Harden understandably has increased his workload.
The results have been mixed.
Yes, Harden has logged heavy scoring performances in Game 1 (37 points), Game 3 (38) and Game 4 (32). He has not always shot efficiently, though. In Game 2, Harden had 21 points while going 5-of-16 from the field and 2-of-11 from 3-point range. In Game 4, Harden experienced drop-offs between the first half (6-of-11) and the second half (5-of-14).
Fewer easy baskets and more 3’s
The Rockets are never going to apologize for shooting too many 3’s. Houston general manager Daryl Morey clings to his math that shows those are the best shots to take in today’s NBA, and coach Mike D’Antoni has been one of the key proponents in that sea change over the past decade.
Without Westbrook, though, the Rockets have dialed up their dependency on the 3-pointer. After averaging 45.3 3-point attempts per game in the regular season, the Rockets have increased those numbers in Game 1 (20-of-52), Game 2 (19-of-56), Game 3 (15-of-50) and Game 4 (23-of-58). In Game 4, the Rockets opened the second half making their first eight 3-point attempts only to go 5-of-26 for the rest of the game.
Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook shakes hands with guard James Harden during the first half of Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
The numbers show the amount of 3-point attempts have not directly dictated a win or loss. But when the Rockets have not made those shots from deep, they do not have Westbrook’s presence to offer a different identity. The biggest consequence of this? The Rockets have not taken a lot of free-throws in Game 1 (17-of-19), Game 2 (16-of-18), Game 3 (16-of-23) and Game 4 (9-of-10).
“That’s on the refs’ perception. We can’t control that aspect,” Rockets forward Robert Covington said. “We feel like he missed calls. But that’s not on us to sit up here (and complain). We just have to keep playing within our offense.”
Defense is key
The reason the Rockets won the first two playoff games against OKC? Look no further than Houston’s defense.
The Rockets held the Thunder to under 45% shooting in both games. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Houston held OKC to 20 points on a 33% clip. Afterwards, Rockets guard Austin Rivers, said, “I’ve never seen our defense look this good, ever.”
Those good times became short-lived.
In Game 3, the Rockets coughed up a five-point lead with 59.7 seconds left in regulation. Then, the Thunder opened overtime with a 12-0 run. In Game 4? Similar story. The Thunder closed out the third quarter with another 12-0 run. Then, OKC pulled away with six unanswered points to clinch the win.
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How to improve those numbers? Rockets forward PJ Tucker said talking would help since “we have a lot of guys who aren’t great communicators.” Westbrook is one of those communicators, though, leaving Tucker compelled to be the one “to talk to them more and get on their nerves.”
“We lose those games in the second, third and fourth quarter,” Tucker said. “Those plays are going to happen sometimes. But we had so many mistakes up to that point. It’s never one possession, turnovers or a missed shot. Don’t get back in transition points. That kills you. Can look back and go from 100 million mistakes we had throughout the game.”
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