The Rockets defeated the Thunder 107-100 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, forcing a Game 6 in Houston on Friday. Oklahoma City now leads the Western Conference first-round playoff series 3-2.
• Desperate Thunder turn to hacking in fourth quarter. The Thunder's offensive struggles without Russell Westbrook played a big role in both Game 3 and Game 4, but the choppiness and inconsistency in those games looked delightful compared to the bricklaying displayed their Game 5 loss. Oklahoma City is down to one reliable offensive threat in Kevin Durant; For once, his jumper wasn't falling, as he hit just one-for-eight from outside on his way to 36 points on 11-for-23 shooting overall. That lack of range from Durant made the court seem very small and the uphill battle from a double-digit deficit in the second half seem very steep. Without a clicking-on-all-cylinders performance from their A1 option, the Thunder attack looked as impotent as it's been in recent memory.
Oklahoma City shot just eight-for-33 (24.2 percent) as a team from deep, a general coldness that prompted guys like Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha to force drives into the paint that didn't have much chance of success. Kevin Martin, the player the Thunder most need to step up in Westbrook's absence, instead had his worst offensive game of the series, shooting one-for-10 (that's a season-low 10 percent) for just three points. Making matters worse, the Rockets' offense was running smoothly and James Harden finally had things going, scoring 31 points (on 10-for-16 shooting and seven threes) and truly dictated the game flow for the first time all series. All of that, plus the knowledge that Westbrook could only watch helplessly from the stands, called for some desperate measures as the game moved deeper into its final period.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks settled on his flavor of desperation by repeatedly and intentionally fouling Rockets center Omer Asik, who shot 56.2 percent on free throws this season and has shot 52.7 percent over his three-year career. Oklahoma City started hacking Asik just after the six-minute mark of the final period and didn't relent for six possessions over more than two minutes of game action.
All told, Asik went to the line a career-high 18 times, knocking down 11-for-16 (68.8 percent) in the fourth quarter. The Thunder trailed by ten when the strategy officially started (5:50 remaining, Rockets up 93-83) and trailed by nine when it concluded (3:53 remaining, Rockets up 101-92), although they did get it as close as six points. The strategy had as much impact as that negligible score differential suggests: Asik fought it off, the Thunder failed to gain any meaningful momentum, and the home crowd was mostly taken out of the game during the endless stoppages of play.
"He hit his free throws," Brooks said in a televised post-game interview. "He stepped up. Give him credit, he stepped up and made shots, made his free throws. That's a strategy we don't use often. We used it once last year against the Spurs."
Those crying cowardice in response to Brooks' move need to exit the basketball freeway. The Thunder's strategy was unsightly, sure, but it was both legal and logical given their lack of momentum and Houston's hot shooting (40 percent from deep on the night). Did anyone expect it would come to this? One of the league's premier teams, at home, trying to gimmick out a game-changing advantage? Absolutely not. Does that make the Thunder bad people, bad basketball citizens, or stupid? Of course not.
The move wasn't totally effective. It also wasn't totally ineffective. Asik out-shot expectations, slightly, but not devastatingly so. Was the alternative reality in which the Thunder simply played it straight guaranteed to be better or worse? We can't ever know for sure, but the two teams played the final three minutes essentially even, too, making a major hypothetical swing unlikely. In the end, credit goes to Asik for delivering in a pressure situation, on the road, and with his team's playoff lives in his hands.
"[Asik] works on [shooting free throws] every single day," Harden said. "We didn't even know this was going to happen. he was ready, He made most of them and that's all that matters."
At the risk of being overly repetitive, it must be said that the Thunder's problems go deeper than their unusual late-game detour into fouling. Not so deep that they are no longer favored to win the series, but deep enough that it's time to start worrying.
• Groovy two-for-one. In a game filled with strategic wrinkles, none was better than James Harden's execution of a two-for-one at the end of the third quarter. With the Rockets up by nine and 35.9 seconds remaining in the game, an unguarded Harden allowed the ball to bounce slowly up the court. The ball rolled and rolled, well past the center line, before he finally picked it up, took one dribble, and stepped into a (not all that deep) three-pointer that swished in with 33.2 seconds. That's right: three points scored in just 2.7 seconds with roughly nine seconds to work with on their second possession. Where's the defense?
On the other end, Durant ran the clock all the way down, knocking home a runner off the dribble just before the shot clock expired. Still, Harden's gambit gave the Rockets sufficient time to get up the court, and Aaron Brooks actually had to milk the clock a little bit before tossing in a runner of his own with less than a second remaining. Pretty stuff. Take a look.
• More Patrick Beverley fallout. Here at the Point Forward, we've been noting the Thunder's responses to Rockets guard Patrick Beverley, who attempted to steal the basketball from Westbrook as he tried to take a timeout in Game 1, a move that led to a season-ending knee injury for the Thunder All-Star guard.
Entering Wednesday, Kendrick Perkins had hit Beverley with a hard screen and Durant had tried to steal the ball from Jeremy Lin in the same manner that Beverley had tried to pilfer Westbrook, apparently aggravating Lin's chest contusion in the process. Meanwhile, Chesapeake Energy Arena had to be beef up its security as Beverley had received death threats from fans, and even a Thunder ball boy, on Twitter over the past week.
Midway through the first quarter, Westbrook's replacement, Reggie Jackson, tried the "steal before the timeout" trick on Beverley, giving him yet another taste of his own medicine. Here's the video.