Article written by Zach Zola (@ZachZola1)
Well, that was a relief.
Losing to Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been a legacy-defining indictment on Mike D’Antoni, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the Rockets organization as a whole. Fortunately, the Rockets took care of business and we don’t have to think about that prospect anymore.
Instead, it is time for celebration as James Harden and the Houston Rockets were able to claw out an impressive victory in Game 7. This is the Rockets’ first Game 7 win since 2015 – a playoff hurdle that the Rockets under D’Antoni have now finally crossed.
Below, I will grade every rotation player’s performance during the First Round series against the Thunder:
James Harden: B+
It wasn’t the offensive virtuoso performance that so many of us hoped for, but James Harden finally had his big time playoff moment.
This (defensive!!) play was arguably the biggest of Harden’s career, saving his legacy from a place that it likely would have never been able to recover from.
And let’s talk about his defense for a second.
In the first round, Harden ranked in the 84th percentile in isolation defense, and the 85th percentile in pick and roll defense. In a series where he was constantly targeted by quicker Thunder guards, Harden more than held his own. In terms of pure counting numbers, Harden had 11 steals over the seven games to go along with 5 blocks (including 3 in the Game 7 win). He has spent his career being ridiculed for his lack of effort on defense, but this series was proof of his vast improvement on that side of the court.
At the same time, though, it is fair to say that Harden struggled at points during this series. Undrafted Rookie Luguentz Dort made life very difficult for him, causing poor shooting nights in Games 2, 3, and 7. In Games 4 and 6, Harden looked absolutely gassed by the end, rarely even touching the ball. Even though he averaged 29.7 points per game, Harden was never really able to take over. He played nicely, but didn’t do enough to put the series out of reach for the Thunder.
For most other NBA players, a series to this caliber would warrant a grade in the A range. But we should hold Harden to a higher standard. We know what he is capable of.
Russell Westbrook: B-
I mean, could you script it any worse for the Rockets?
You trade away the perennially injured Chris Paul (plus picks) for the iron man Russell Westbrook, only to have Westbrook get injured and CP3 be completely healthy. It was an absolute nightmare scenario.
At the same time, though, this series ended up proving that the trade was definitively a good trade.
I say that with the understanding that Westbrook flat out lost Game 6 by himself. There’s really no other way to put it. That performance is why I can’t really grade him any higher than a B-. Here’s just one of the many out of control plays from that game:
However, even with Westbrook’s struggles, his return to the lineup changed the flow of the games completely. Other than exploiting his rust, the Thunder really had no coherent game plan against him. With his return in Game 5, the Rockets consistently generated open shot attempts on offense AND gained the personnel on defense to slow down the likes of Schroder and SGA. In fact, as our own Itamar pointed out, Westbrook is currently the NBA Playoffs leader in defensive rating.
In Game 7, Westbrook was exactly the spark the Rockets needed. With the offense struggling, Westbrook scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting in the 3rd quarter alone, putting the team on his back with the game in the balance. This not only allowed the Rockets to stay in the game, but it allowed Harden to get the rest and confidence he needed heading into the 4th quarter.
And that’s really why I feel the trade was a good one. Westbrook brings out the best in Harden. They have been friends for such a long time, and Westbrook – more so than Chris Paul ever could – has an innate ability to make Harden listen to him. Harden may be the better player, but he needed someone alongside him that could steady the ship when things got dire. That is exactly what Westbrook was able to do this series (other than Game 6, RIP), and it is something that should continue as we move ahead to the Second Round and beyond.
Oh, and he also found time to send in his application for a coaching gig one day:
Robert Covington, Games 1-3: C
Robert Covington, Games 4-7: A+++
What a coming out party for RoCo.
Many fans and media members questioned the decision to trade the starting center for a wing player, but this series proved how valuable Covington is to this Rockets team. They may have lost height, but Covington’s elite activity and aggression is something that the Rockets have been sorely missing for years.
In the first round, Covington led the league in both steals and blocks, repeatedly causing havoc with his off-ball defense. He came up huge down the stretch in Game 7 on both ends of the floor, hitting threes and forcing the Thunder into difficult shot attempts.
What makes this series all the more impressive for RoCo, though, is how much he struggled in the early games. His poor three point shooting in the Bubble carried over to the playoffs, and he often looked lost on defense – especially when switched on to smaller guards like Schroder.
It speaks to his confidence, then, that he was able to rebound in such a major way moving forward in the series. In Games 4-7, Covington averaged 18.8 points per game on a ridiculous 55.5% from three point range. In Games 6 and 7, he totaled eight steals and six blocks.
Daryl Morey and the Rockets had been trying to get this man on the team for two years. This series, he proved that he was worth every penny.
PJ Tucker: A-
NBA Twitter owes PJ Tucker a big apology.
After all the memes and all the chatter, PJ Tucker absolutely shut down the supposed “strongest player in the league” Steven Adams. Adams was invisible for much of the series, due in large part to Tucker’s strong post defense.
At the end of the day, Tucker is so key to this Rockets team because of how aggressive he is on the offensive and defensive boards. The Rockets could make the trade to go small because they had someone like Tucker who plays big even with a massive height disadvantage.
Here’s one of the many examples of how his activity on the glass leads to good things for the Rockets:
On offense, despite shooting well in Games 1 and 2, Tucker was often a non-factor and missed a ton of corner threes late in the series. His shooting is something that will need to be more consistent against the Lakers, as he will likely be getting even more wide open attempts.
He did, however, score the basket that ultimately put the Rockets up for good in Game 7. On a floater no less!
And, above all else, he made the most noble sacrifice possible:
Danuel House: A-
After last year’s disappointment, no one really knew what to expect from House. Would he maintain his high level of play from the regular season, or fold again in the Playoffs?
Fortunately for the Rockets, House did what he needed to do and more.
He hit his threes at a 37% clip for 13 points per game, and played really impressive defense on SGA. On three point contests over the course of the series, House held his opponents to under 32%, which was the best mark of any Rockets player.
It was a joy to see House so energized and engaged throughout the series, and I’m glad to see that he was able to bounce back after failing to make an impact against the Warriors last year.
Despite his excellence on both ends of the court, he’ll have to settle for an A- instead of an A. Can’t be going around missing free throws with the game on the line…
Eric Gordon: B-
Gordon is unquestionably the hardest player to grade. Do I dock points for his horrific shot selection and head-scratching turnovers? Or pile on the praise for his momentum shifting drives and awesome defense on Chris Paul?
I think the answer has to be a little bit of both.
I want to be harsher on Gordon – and believe me I have been – but the truth is that despite some boneheaded plays, he came up huge for the Rockets when they needed him most. And I’m not just talking about Game 7 where he ended with 21 points on 5-9 from three to go along with a couple of key late game stops. Throughout the series, Gordon got pretty much whatever he wanted at the rim whenever he wanted it.
When he wasn’t chucking up threes from Space Mountain, Gordon acted as a nice secondary ball handler alongside Harden. And without Westbrook, the Rockets needed Gordon to exploit the Thunder’s weak interior defense. His strength and quickness allowed him to do just that.
On defense, Gordon had an easier time staying with the shifty Thunder guards. Take a look at this strip from Chris Paul late in Game 7:
Rockets fans had plenty of issues with Gordon’s play against the Thunder. That’s for certain. He does deserve a lot of criticism for never really adjusting his play style, but he also deserves praise for the number of big plays he made throughout the series.
Jeff Green: A
Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder Round 1, 2020. Or, as I like to call it, the series where “Point Jeff Green” was officially launched.
I mean, where did that come from???
Against a confused Thunder defense, Green got pretty much whatever he wanted. He shot the ball well and was able to consistently find open lanes to the basket. For the series, he averaged 13.4 points per game on over 50% shooting from the field and 46.5% from three point range. In Game 7, he kept the Rockets afloat – scoring timely threes when the Rockets were in desperate need of an offensive spark.
Green came up huge for the Rockets – a far cry from the guy without a job back in February.
Austin Rivers, Game 2, 2nd Quarter: A+
Austin Rivers, Rest of Series: F
I swear that highlight feels like it took place decades ago at this point.
Other than Game 2, Austin Rivers shot 5-28 from the field in this series, good for 17%. This was pretty disappointing for Rivers, who missed out on an opportunity to make a big impact with Westbrook sidelined. His father Doc Rivers came to see most of the Rockets’ games, and I am pretty sure he won’t be offering his son a contract back with the Clippers anytime soon.
Rivers will get more chances against LA in the Second Round. Fortunately, the Lakers don’t have as many capable perimeter defenders as the Thunder do, hopefully allowing some easier scoring opportunities for Rivers moving forward.
As for Round 1? At least we’ll always have that second quarter.
Ben McLemore: D
This was kind of a weird series for McLemore, who really only received substantial playing time in two out of the seven games. He shot well when given an opportunity, but wasn’t really able to stay on the floor because of his defense.
Against the Lakers, there will be more opposing players for him to “hide” on, which should allow for increased playing time.
Tyson Chandler as Bench Captain: A+
Tyson Chandler Shooting Free Throws: F
Across the board, each Rockets player had their moments, but everyone has room for improvement going into the next round. I won’t give an official series prediction yet, but you can read more about why I feel that the Rockets actually match up really well with the Lakers here.
Whatever happens, at least we didn’t lose to Chris Paul.
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