Russell Westbrook is ready to roll as the Houston Rockets enter Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.
The Thunder and Rockets are tied 2-2 in the best-of-seven series.
The game will be played 72 hours after the original scheduled tipoff Wednesday, when the NBA collectively boycotted the playoffs to bring attention to social justice and racial inequality issues.
At the forefront of those talks was Thunder guard Chris Paul, who was traded away from the Rockets for Westbrook prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. The two met behind closed doors Wednesday and determined not to play Game 5, following the lead of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks decided to skip their own Game 5 against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday to bring attention to the team’s call for justice in the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.
The incident hit close to home for Paul on multiple levels.
“When I say ‘tired’ we’re not physically tired of seeing the same thing over and over again, right?” Paul said Friday. “I was blessed and fortunate enough to talk to Jacob Blake’s father and he’s a Winston-Salem State (graduate) and was in my hometown of Winston-Salem for awhile, and it’s emotional. It’s emotional. Especially when you’re a Black man. … We’re all hurt.”
Both teams are trying to refocus on the court, but Paul said that will be a serious challenge.
The teams practiced Friday afternoon, and the reviews were glowing for Westbrook. He missed the first four games of the series with a quadriceps injury. On Friday, he was “his explosive self,” according to observers.
Paul and Dennis Schroder are two of the biggest reasons behind the Thunder’s surprising run to the playoffs this season.
Their struggles were a big part of why the Thunder fell behind 2-0 to the Rockets in the series and now their resurgence is a major factor how OKC has tied up the series entering Game 5.
Paul and Schroder, the Thunder’s starting and backup point guards, were not often on the floor together this season. But late in the last two games, Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan has elected to go to a small lineup, with those two being the primary beneficiaries.
Houston has leaned heavily on a small lineup since the trade deadline, making up for what it lost in rim protection by switching relentlessly and wearing opponents down on the perimeter.
That’s what the Rockets did in the series’ first two games.
But in overtime of Game 3 and in the waning minutes of Game 4, Donovan took out center Steven Adams and went with a lineup where 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari, the best 3-point shooter on the Thunder, was their biggest man on the floor.
“I think it all comes down to our spacing,” Donovan said after Monday’s 117-114 win. “Earlier in this series, our spacing was not great, and it allowed their physicality and length to really shut off things.”
In the first two games of the series, Schroder and Paul combined to average 26.5 points and 39.7 percent shooting from the field. The last two games, the duo has combined to average 55.5 points while shooting 52.6 percent.
Schroder, who missed six seeding games for the birth of his child before returning for the finale, has scored 29 and 30 in the last two games.
“He always causes problems,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s a good player. He’s crafty.”
Twice in the series, the Rockets have set a playoff record for most 3-point attempts, shooting 58 from behind the arc in Monday’s loss to break the record they set with 56 tries in Game 2.
“A lot of them were good shots,” Houston’s James Harden said. “Those are shots we normally take. Maybe there were some that we could have played off the catch and got a better shot. But I think for the most part we took some pretty good shots as far as catch-and-shoot.”
Without Westbrook to help create space for shooters, though, Houston has at times struggled to convert from distance.
After going 6-for-13 from behind the arc in the opener, Harden is just 11-for-39 from behind the 3-point line in the last three games.
A big part of that has been the defense of Oklahoma City rookie Luguentz Dort.
“Lu is special,” Paul said of Dort, who kept Harden in check in the fourth quarter of Game 4 despite playing most of the quarter with five fouls. “Unbelievable how he accepts the challenge.”
Westbrook (strained quadriceps) was upgraded to questionable Wednesday afternoon after a positive workout in the morning. He has played in just one game since Aug. 4. But the extra days off during the boycott have Westbrook ready to roll.
Befitting the mood of the week, Westbrook wanted to focus more on the bigger picture of what has transpired, not his return to a Rockets lineup in need of his unique contributions.
“I’m excited to play but I’m more excited that we’re playing for a cause, playing that we’re in agreeance to be able to make sure there’s action,” Westbrook said. “For guys like myself and I’m sure guys around the league, we play and have our names on the back of our jerseys and we have our messaging on the back of our jerseys and that means something. It’s not just something we put on there for fun, for kicks and giggles. It actually means something.”
–Field Level Media