There's no mystery as to how the Rockets like to play eight years into the James Harden era.
Houston guns for the three-point record nearly every night, riding a steady diet of Harden isolations and kick-out triples. The formula has led to one of the most successful stretches in team history. On Monday, it led to a dispiriting Game 4 loss.
The Rockets broke their own playoff record with 58 attempted threes in Monday's 117-114 loss to the Thunder, and they posted a more-than-respectable 39.7% mark with 23 made triples. But the solid metric obscures Houston's offensive performance in the second half. The Rockets started the half strong with eight straight made shots, yet they quickly stalled in crunch time. Houston made just five of its last 26 threes. Harden missed seven triples in his final 10 attempts. The Rockets legs appeared heavy late and the Thunder took advantage. A lack of variety in Houston's shot profile proved costly late.
"They played a little bit better than we did down the stretch," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "I thought he had our looks, we didn't make them. We turned the ball over a couple of times, that hurt us. It was well fought."
Houston still had ample opportunity to seize Monday's victory despite a poor shooting night. In fact, a blueprint was developed in Game 1. Harden and Eric Gordon combined to make just seven of 19 triples, but Houston's defense swarmed Chris Paul and the Thunder. Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander combined for just 34 points on 35 shots, struggling to create any separation against Houston's collection of wings. Oklahoma City flipped the script on Monday.
The Thunder scored at the rim seemingly at will in Game 4, winning the points-in-the-paint battle by a significant margin. Oklahoma City's guard trio finished the night with a combined 74 points after a 78-point night in Game 3, taking advantage of Houston's defenders on an island time and again in the second half. Schroder proved especially lethal on Monday with 30 points on 10-16 shooting. Paul was once again the catalyst late. The Thunder may be without a true top option, but they certainly don't lack firepower.
Monday's loss marks the second straight blown lead for the Rockets in the fourth quarter, with both Game 3 and Game 4 standing as significant missed opportunities. This series appeared to be heading toward a sweep after two games. We could now be on the road to a seven-game slugfest. Perhaps Russell Westbrook will add some variety to the Rockets' attack. Otherwise, Houston could die by the three against Paul and the Thunder.