The Thunder clobbered the Rockets 120-91 on Sunday night in Oklahoma City in Game 1 of a Western Conference first-round series. Here are three takeaways:
• 'Painful' loss for Rockets. Few, if any, executives were as excited by the prospect of postseason play as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
"It would feel amazing," Morey told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month. "You definitely appreciate making the playoffs when you're not in for three years."
It took just 48 minutes against the top-seeded Thunder for "amazing" to dissipate into something else.
"That was painful," Morey tweeted after a 29-point drubbing that saw Thunder coach Scott Brooks pull all of his stars by early in the fourth quarter.
The concept and symbolic importance of the postseason can easily outweigh the reality for mid-level teams, especially those as young and inexperienced as Houston. After back-to-back deep postseason runs, the Thunder looked every part of the incumbent favorite, holding the Rockets without a field goal for the game's first five-plus minutes and toasting them with a 10-2 run to close the first half. It only degenerated from there, and Rockets coach Kevin McHale had no shortage of areas to improve on for Game 2.
Houston committed 15 turnovers, made only 8-of-36 (22.2 percent) from three-point range, didn't get efficient nights from James Harden, Jeremy Lin or Chandler Parsons, couldn't stay in front of Russell Westbrook (19 points and 10 assists) and had no consistent answer for either Kevin Durant (24 points, six rebounds and four assists) or Serge Ibaka (17 points, seven rebounds, three blocks). Some of the items on that list can be the subject of adjustments or extra attention from the coaching staff; others, especially Westbrook, aren't going anywhere.
• The Rockets were hardly alone in feeling the pain. All eight road teams lost Game 1s during the opening weekend of the playoffs. The average margin of victory for the favorites was 16 points and six of the eight favorites won by double figures. Even the Warriors, who managed to push the Nuggets to the final possession, will be in for choppier waters thanks to the loss of All-Star David Lee to a hip injury and the return of Denver's Kenneth Faried from an ankle sprain.
I guess that means we should extrapolate that old maxim -- that a series doesn't start until a road team wins a game -- to the entire playoffs. The postseason won't start until an underdog, any underdog, wins a game. But who will it be? Golden State? Boston? Memphis?
• Game 1 played out like a nightmare for Harden. It was almost as if the basketball gods were throwing everything they could at him to see whether he would regret leaving the Thunder via trade last October. The Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd booed him. He shot just 6-for-19 from the field. His team was down 13-2 before he could blink. And the disparity between the two teams in terms of length, talent and experience was self-evident throughout.
"Believe it or not I think losing like this will be good for us," Harden said, according to NBA.com. "We'll get better out of it. We'll look at the film and see what we need to do to get better. But just coming out here and being in a playoff atmosphere, on the road, it's good for us."
The Rockets definitely got a taste of the best the Western Conference has to offer, and Harden's attempt at optimism is in line with Morey's pre-playoffs excitement. Given how the matchups broke, this year was mostly about getting the Rockets' young core their first set of playoff repetitions together, with an eye toward the future. The Rockets' regrouping message for Game 2 should be simple: There's no shame in getting blown out by the Thunder, who led the league with a plus-9.2 margin of victory, on an off night. Play sharper and shoot better and a more competitive contest awaits.
That said, the series goal has crystallized quickly for Houston: Try to avoid the sweep.