The first half of the Rockets' Game 5 win over the Thunder on Saturday featured many of the same issues that plagued Houston in each of the last two contests. Dennis Schroder punished the Rockets at the rim, Houston went cold from three, and there remained little firepower outside of James Harden. The third quarter changed the tenor the series.
Houston reverted back to its Game 1 and Game 2 dominance in a major way as they took the floor after halftime on Saturday. The Rockets went on a 19-2 run to start the third quarter, attacking the rim at will as their defense finally slowed penetration in the lane. Houston had looked far from a title contender in the 10 quarters after its Game 2 blowout. Harden and Co. now appear to be back in Finals form after a 114-80 victory.
"For three quarters our defense was really good," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "Our second quarter we lost our way a little bit but the defense was good overall, and in the third quarter it was excellent. ...I was really happy with our effort and what we did."
The Rockets canned 19 triples–including six from Robert Covington–on Saturday, but their defensive performance in the second half was the story of the night. Oklahoma City scored just 18 points in the third quarter, struggling to find any semblance of room in the lane. Chris Paul finished with just three assists and four turnovers. Danilo Gallinari didn't make a single shot. Dennis Schroder's third-quarter ejection certainly helped Houston, but his exit came after Oklahoma City dug itself into a double-digit deficit. The Rockets found their Game 1 and Game 2 form on Saturday, bringing them one game closer to a likely matchup with LeBron James and the Lakers.
"We did a better job of guarding the ball, guarding isolations and things like that," Harden said postgame. "We did a good job individually taking on the challenge and our weak-side defense was better as well."
Houston's sterling defense on Saturday night wasn't solely a product of Oklahoma City's poor shooting. A 3-16 performance from Luguentz Dort didn't exactly help the Thunder, but their offensive struggles were at least in part caused by the Rockets. Houston moved on a string defensively, looking far sharper in its rotations in the lane. Harden and the Rockets remain vulnerable at the point of attack. They still got beat on the perimeter on numerous occasions. But when the first defender was passed, a wall was formed. The shaky-shooting Thunder couldn't punish the Rockets as they packed the paint. Expect a similar blueprint on Monday.
The Rockets now hold a 3–2 lead on Oklahoma City, and they appear to have found a few staples for success moving forward. The Thunder will be dared to beat Houston from beyond the arc. Russell Westbrook will continue to slash down the lane, creating plenty of open shots for the Rockets' stable of stationary shooters. And after 31 points on 15 shots, Harden appears to be rested and ready for an extended playoff run. But despite a blowout on Saturday, Houston knows the series is far from over. Oklahoma City came back from the dead in Game 3. It erased a second-half deficit in Game 4. The Rockets aren't looking ahead as Chris Paul and the Thunder fight for their playoff lives.
"They're not going anywhere," D'Antoni said. "It's going to be a dogfight the next game. To close people out is one of the hardest things to do."
The Rockets will look to advance to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs on Monday night. Tip-off time from Orlando has yet to be announced.