Eric Gordon’s struggles to start the 2020 playoffs weren’t exactly of concern to the Rockets after commanding victories over Oklahoma City in Game 1 and Game 2.
James Harden carried the load for Houston on Tuesday with 37 points, and the three-time scoring champion also received significant contributions from Jeff Green and Ben McLemore. The Rockets’ defense then suffocated Chris Paul and the Thunder on Thursday, with the series potentially trending toward a sweep after a pair of relative blowouts. Oklahoma City’s Game 3 win on Saturday has changed the narrative.
Paul and the Thunder began to find some offensive breathing room in Game 3, but perhaps more importantly, they may have found a formula for slowing Harden. Oklahoma City forward Lugentz Dort shined as the primary defender on Harden on Saturday, walling off driving lanes and contesting threes better than perhaps any defender in the NBA. The Rockets’ offense stalled late as a result, and the Thunder were able to erase a five-point deficit with under a minute remaining. Dort could be one of the series’ defining players moving forward.
The Thunder’s ability to potentially contain Harden with single coverage presents a legitimate problem for the Rockets, one that's exacerbated by Russell Westbrook's quad injury. Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker and Ben McLemore are largely stationary shooters. Jeff Green and Danuel House have verve off the bounce, though they're primarily straight-line drivers with eyes firmly fixed on the rim. Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon are the only true playmakers outside of Harden with Westbrook sidelined. Neither played well on Saturday night.
Gordon is the most likely option to assume a greater scoring and playmaking load with Westbrook out. He received a four-year, $76 million extension in September 2019, and previous playoff series have featured a healthy dose of the Indiana product. But the first three games vs. Oklahoma City have mirrored Gordon's struggles through 2019-20. His jump shot remains shaky, and he committed five turnovers in Game 3. Gordon's struggles will be of significant concern for Houston as long as Westbrook is out of the lineup.
There have been brief doses of positivity despite Gordon's ugly shooting (4-26 from three) throughout the series. He's been quick and aggressive off the bounce, and he made seven of 13 shots at the rim in the first two games of the series. The knee and ankle trouble that plagued Gordon all season appears to be in the rearview mirror. The turning point for Gordon's season could be right around the corner.
There is a clear solution for the Rockets even if Gordon doesn't return to his previous playoff form. Russell Westbrook provides more than enough pressure at the rim, and the added playmaker should give Harden extra breathing room even if Dort remains his primary defender. But we shouldn't expect Westbrook's return to be imminent. Mike D'Antoni has not committed to a return date despite Westbrook's reported progress, and with eyes on an extended playoff run, there's every incentive to exercise plenty of caution. With Westbrook out, Gordon needs to step up. Otherwise, a long series could await.