In addition to the series-saving performances from their celebrated trio of skilled guards, the Oklahoma City Thunder placed so much ballyhoo on the defensive effort of rookie Luguentz Dort that it was all but guaranteed the Houston Rockets would devise a suitable counterattack.
In Game 5 last Saturday, the Rockets proved much more deliberate in making sure Dort felt the body of a screener as he defended James Harden, and the result was favorable. Harden produced his most efficient showing of the series and the Rockets rolled to a 114-80 victory that secured a 3-2 series lead and an opportunity to close out Oklahoma City on Monday near Orlando.
Harden scored a game-high 31 points on just 15 shots while playing only 28 minutes. Harden recorded an effective field goal percentage of 86.7 percent and thrived by capitalizing on solid screens set against Dort and by exploiting alternate defenders when the Thunder allowed the switch.
“First thing Dort is a very good defender but his aggression sometimes gets the best of him, so we kind of exploited it a little bit,” Rockets forward Robert Covington said. “The main thing is we’ve got to hit him and continue to get James open. Either they’re going to force the switch or it’s going to open up something else.
“James has been doing a great job of finding guys and making the right plays, so we’ve got to stay with the game plan and continue to be effective with that.”
Complementary to the offensive game plan against Dort was a defensive strategy that allowed Dort uncontested perimeter looks. The Rockets harassed Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander into 2-for-8 shooting and cleaved to forward Danilo Gallinari, who totaled a series-low one point on 0-for-5 shooting. Their aggressive rotations left Dort open by design, and he responded by missing 13 of 16 shots including an unsightly 0-for-9 display from deep.
“I think part of his growth is understanding when to shoot some, when to drive some and when to pass some,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Dort, who is shooting 26.1 percent in the series. “He probably had a mix of a lot of those in the game. The other thing, too, is with the way that he has guarded James Harden in the series — he’s done a great job — he just didn’t have a very good offensive night.
“But those same shots were there in Game 4. He made a couple of them, and he also made some big plays. He’s not going to be perfect, none of us are perfect. But you’re going to get great effort from (Dort). He just didn’t shoot the ball well. Our whole team didn’t shoot the ball well.”
Oklahoma City shot 31.5 percent in Game 5 and missed 39 of 46 3-pointers. The Thunder have made a habit of rebounding from deficits, with their victories in Games 3 and 4 serving as testimonies to their resilience. But the Rockets have averaged a 20.7-point margin of victory in their three series wins, serving notice that when things go well for Houston, they unfold especially well.
“I think we know what we have to do, and we’ve got to respond,” Donovan said. “This group has always kind of done that.”
–Field Level Media