Living and dying by the three is nothing new for James Harden and the Rockets in recent seasons.
Houston's predilection for the long ball has been a primary engine in its success over the last half-decade, yet droughts from three have cost the Rockets multiple playoff games in the Harden era. But Thursday's 111-98 win over Oklahoma City marked something of an anomaly. Harden and Co. were able to manufacture a victory despite a dismal night from behind the arc, fueling confidence in their chances at a surprise run to the Finals. Houston has defended at a championship level in each of its first two playoff games.
"The second half [defense] I thought was incredible, it won us the game," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "We've got to come out in the third game with the same kind of mentality and the same kind of energy."
The Rockets entered round one with a simple defensive directive: contain Oklahoma City's dynamic guard trio. Houston followed the blueprint to a tee in Game 1 as Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander combined for 35 points on 34 shots, and Thursday featured a repeat performance. Houston's length and versatility continued to flummox the Thunder, and Chris Paul struggled mightily in Oklahoma City's second straight loss.
The future Hall of Famer torched the Rockets in the regular season, taking full advantage of switches onto Clint Capela. He doesn't have the same luxury in this series. Any switch leaves Paul matched up with at least a competent defender, and oftentimes, he fails to create any meaningful separation whatsoever. The numbers spell out Paul's struggles. He's scored 34 points in the series on 29 shots. He finished Thursday with a minus-36 in 37 minutes. The Point God looks like a shell of his former self against Houston.
The Rockets still trailed 78-77 entering the fourth quarter despite their superb defense, largely a product of a dismal shooting night throughout the roster. Houston missed its last 15 threes in the second quarter, and James Harden finished the night just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. But with the three-time scoring champion struggling, an unexpected contributor stepped up. Danuel House finished the night with 19 points and nine rebounds, trailing only Eric Gordon with a plus-19. House was active on the offensive glass and confident from three, benefitting from his general lack of conscience beyond the arc. The biggest sin in D'Antoni's offense is hesitation. Houston's head coach doesn't have to worry about that with House.
The Rockets now have a 2–0 series lead over Oklahoma City, and this series could end in short order with or without Russell Westbrook. The Thunder lack the requisite firepower to attack a collection of long wings. Houston wins the simple math battle by virtue of its three-point volume. The Rockets continue to make their case as Finals contenders, and their versatility through two games has certainly been impressive. Houston is anything but a one-trick pony in the 2020 playoffs.