Fourth-Quarter Collapse Costs Rockets in Loss to Thunder

Michael Shapiro

The locker room was only a brief detour for James Harden after Monday’s collapse against the Thunder.

Harden returned to the floor less than five minutes after the final buzzer in Houston’s 112-107 loss, still in his uniform alongside assistant coach John Lucas. Harden didn’t return to the court at the Toyota Center to retrieve a forgotten item or snap a photo. He was there to work, launching threes for nearly a half hour before heading into the tunnel. 

It was likely a welcome sight for Harden to see the ball go through the basket postgame. Made threes were a rare occurrence during the 48 minutes against Oklahoma City. Harden finished the evening making just nine of 29 shots and one of 17 triples. He made some (ugly) history in the process, becoming the first player to have 5 turnovers, 15 three-point attempts and a three-point percentage worse than 10% in a single game. The performance marked a season-low for Harden, and a new nadir for the Rockets as they fell to 26-16 in 2019-20.

“It got away,” Harden said postgame after a near-30-minute workout. “We stopped doing the things that got us the lead, and they capitalized on it.”

Harden struggled throughout the fourth quarter on Monday. He made just two field goals (no threes) and he added three turnovers and a pair of missed free throws. Harden’s teammates matched his struggles on both ends of the floor. The Rockets made just one of 12 threes in the fourth quarter, and they allowed 41 points in the final 12 minutes as they lost their fourth straight game. The answers to the Rockets current woes aren’t easily evident.

“Right now we're in a period where if something is going to go bad, it goes bad. When it rains it pours, and it's pouring,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said postgame. “We can choose to fight back, keep your head up, that's a choice, that's our choice. You can choose to not listen to the noise. You can choose to look at yourself, and do better. I'll do the same, if everybody does the same, we'll be fine.”

Harden’s co-star picked up the slack on Monday as the two-time scoring champion slumped. Russell Westbrook was dominant for much of the contest, finishing the loss with 32 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. Westbrook attacked the rim with abandon on Monday night as he secured a triple-double against all 30 teams. He made just two field goals outside of the paint, and his lone three-point attempt of the night came in the final seconds. The performance continued Westbrook's strong play of late, and he's found his groove midway through the season after some early struggles. Rumors of Westbrook's demise appear seriously overstated.

Houston's fourth quarter collapse overshadowed a strong effort from numerous rotation players on Monday. Danuel House shook off a two-week slump en route to 13 points, and Thabo Sefolosha added five points, including a buzzer-beater three to end the first quarter. The Rockets were rolling for much of the evening, playing with far more energy than they did against Memphis, Portland or New Orleans. But production through 36 minutes doesn't mean much without closing the contest.

"I honestly thought we played a good game," Westbrook said postgame. "We played a good game for the most part. Obviously, the last six minutes we didn't play our best basketball, but I thought we pretty much had control of the game."

The Rockets remain optimistic despite the four-game losing streak, their longest stretch without a victory this season. Houston has two MVPs, an impressive young center and one of the league's most dangerous three-point attacks. But the Rockets' talent isn't exactly as advertised if one MVP struggles so mightily from the field. Harden shot 27% from three in his last six games before Monday's debacle. He turned in clunkers against the Grizzlies and Blazers, and he did the same against Oklahoma City on Jan. 9. Perhaps fatigue is setting in, though there isn't a reprieve on the horizon before the All-Star break. 

The Rockets face the Nuggets twice, Jazz once and Mavericks once in the remainder of January. They'll face the Lakers in Los Angeles on Feb. 6, then host Boston on Feb. 11. Houston will need Harden at his best in the coming weeks to avoid a slide down the Western Conference standings. Harden hopes his postgame work will help lift the Rockets out of his current funk. 

"When you're struggling you try to get back to the fundamentals and basics of your shot form. ...[It's] all repetition."

Up Next: vs. Nuggets on Sunday

The Rockets will look to snap a four-game losing streak on Wednesday as Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets come to the Toyota Center. Houston blitzed Denver in its last matchup on Dec. 31, beating the Nuggets 130-104 behind 35 points from Harden. A repeat performance on Wednesday could be just what the doctor ordered.

Tip-off from the Toyota Center is slated for 7 p.m. CT.  


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