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Thunder Build Case as Western Conference Contenders One Defensive Rotation at a Time

Houston was without Chris Paul, but Oklahoma City's defensive effort on Christmas against James Harden and company proved it belongs in the conversation with the West elite.

To survive a game against the Rockets requires constant vigilance. If handling James Harden–this season’s clear MVP favorite–wasn’t enough, his every move comes in conjunction with the kinds of layered options that tear a defense apart. Pay slightly too much mind for a given shooter or roll man for even a second and Harden will strut to the rim. Edge toward Harden a hair too much and he will throw ridiculous, cross-body passes to whichever shooter is left unattended. Houston first tests its opponents’ game plans on a conceptual level and then floods them with attack after attack. By the time the defense can even evaluate whether its strategy is water-tight, it’s almost too late.

All of which makes Oklahoma City’s 112-107 Christmas Day win over Houston that much more impressive. On the surface, the game might look like a shootout: Both teams scored well above and beyond league averages, with the Rockets doing damage from three and from the free throw line while the Thunder shot 54.4% from the field overall. Mistakes were made on OKC’s part, some leaving Houston with uncontested dunks and three-pointers. Yet in between was an impressive, extended display of coverage against what is close to a maximized offense. 

You cannot stop Harden (29 points on 18 shots, with 14 assists to just one turnover) with traps and double-teams, but the Thunder at least forced him to consider his moves more carefully. At times it took the Rockets two or three separate ball screens to create any movement at all, some with hard resets of the offense in between. That kind of stagnation could fully undermine a lesser creator. In Harden’s case, it merely slows him—turning what could have been a downhill drive into a step-back jumper. Ridiculous though Harden’s conversion of those shots may be, he prefers to drive for a reason. 

Still Harden found opportunities to split the trap and threaded passes to Clint Capela in the lane whenever possible. It was then that the Thunder—who had dedicated two defenders to many of Harden’s pick-and-rolls—were forced into a frantic, dangerous game of rotate and recover. Respond to the immediate threat (be it Harden or Capela) and one of Houston’s many three-point shooters springs open. The Rockets have a nose for these openings; even if the first pass doesn’t find the best target initially, the ball zips around the perimeter at a speed that few defenses can match. Oklahoma City managed. This team has the personnel to execute all sorts of defensive approaches, and in this game balanced several at once: hard traps, situational switching, and conventional help. Even one or two slip-ups could have been the difference.

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Yet whenever a play seemed to be teetering on the edge, Andre Roberson or Paul George would be there to steady it. Steven Adams seemed forever caught between multiple responsibilities, but balanced them masterfully. No defense can close out perfectly against the Rockets for an entire game, but the Thunder—bigs and smalls alike—kept it reasonable and forced specialists to put the ball on the floor. It is a credit to players like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson that they were able to make good on that premise, slicing into layups and assists. Still it was the right schematic call, and it was right of OKC to play Houston to its weaknesses. 

And even then, the Thunder needed their own terrific shot-making to hold up their end of the margin. This was one of the best collaborative efforts to date between George (24 points), Russell Westbrook (31 points, 11 assists), and Carmelo Anthony (20 points on just 12 shots). It helped that Chris Paul was absent, denying Houston its surest source of weak-side dynamism opposite Harden. The Thunder needed a few fortunate bounces to go their way, they needed Harden to slow down near the finish line, and they needed huge individual plays from Roberson and Westbrook and Anthony and George. This is what it takes to beat the Rockets, which is why so few teams this season have even gotten close. The Thunder did one better, building their case as challengers one perfect rotation at a time.