Behind Harden and Beverley, Rockets hammer Thunder in Game 1 blowout


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Just as we all predicted, the star of the first game in the head-to-head matchup between two of the leading candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award was … Patrick Beverley?

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With all eyes on high-scoring, playmaking All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, it was the hard-as-nails Chicago-born guard who helped tilt the game. Beverley rebounded from a bone-crunching screen by Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams to ignite a monster third-quarter run that turned what had been a tight contest through two quarters into a blowout early in the fourth, as the Houston Rockets ran away with a 118-87 shellacking of the visiting Thunder to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series.

After getting planted by a pick with just over 8 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Beverley came back to drill a pair of 3-pointers off feeds from Harden to give the Rockets their first double-digit lead of the game and get the crowd at Toyota Center as fired up as they’d been all night:

The second 3 set a new playoff career-high scoring mark for Beverley, who would finish with 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting (4-for-6 from 3-point land) to go with 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 26 minutes of work.

“He’s been doing it since I’ve been here, five years,” Harden said when TNT’s David Aldridge asked him about his backcourt partner after the game. “He’s just this dog, man. He’s feisty. He’s going to play as hard as he can. That’s one of the reasons he’s in the position he’s in. Obviously, he knocked down some big shots, scored for us well, but he plays with a lot of energy, a lot of tenacity.”

Patrick Beverley made his voice heard and presence felt in Game 1. (Getty Images)
Patrick Beverley made his voice heard and presence felt in Game 1. (Getty Images)

He also had a hand in limiting Westbrook, the league’s leading scorer during the regular season, to 22 points on 6-for-23 shooting (3-for-11 from deep) and helping Russ undercut his seven assists with nine turnovers.

After the game, though, Beverley was quick to deflect credit for dimming the Thunder’s leading light.

“I don’t think it was individual at all,” Beverley said during his postgame press conference. “I think it was a team effort. We just tried to show him a lot of bodies, try to make it as tough as possible on him. We understand that he’s one of the most explosive guards in this league, and can’t one person guard him. Of course we understand that. But, you know, just try to make it tough on him, try to make him shoot a lot of contested 3s, and tonight, I guess we got lucky.”

Westbrook didn’t use that same term when asked about Beverley’s surprising offensive performance. But he also didn’t seem especially concerned about the defensive-minded guard repeated that performance throughout the series.

“We don’t want to give up drive-and-kick 3s. That’s what they do,” Westbrook said during his postgame press conference. “He made some tough shots. We’re OK with that […] He made some shots. He made some shots. We’re OK with that. He made some shots. You live with it.”

They might have been lucky on that score, but after Oklahoma City took a 29-27 lead following the first quarter thanks to Westbrook’s attacking and some surprising shooting from defense-first wing Andre Roberson, the Rockets were also awfully good. That was especially true of Harden, who went 4-for-11 from the field in the first frame, missing all four of his 3-point tries, before cranking it up in a big way:

Harden scored or assisted on 26 of the Rockets’ 30 points in a third quarter that saw Houston extend its lead to 17 points. Thanks to the attacking of reserve guard Lou Williams and the playmaking of Beverley …

… the lead was up to 20 by the time Harden checked back in with just under 7 1/2 minutes to go in the fourth. A couple of Beard triples later, and the advantage was up to 30, allowing Harden to check out with 4:14 remaining and rest his laurels on a stellar stat line of 37 points (13-for-28 from the field, 8-for-11 at the foul line) with nine assists, seven rebounds, three steals and just two turnovers in 34 minutes.

After struggling early to find the range on his jumper en route to a 3-for-11 mark from 3-point range, and with Oklahoma City showing a different defensive wrinkle by switching screens up top and trusting their big men to guard Harden in space rather in hopes of taking away his passes out to 3-point shooters, Harden dedicated himself to attacking the basket.

“No doubt about it,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game when asked if the Thunder had shifted defensive tactics. “We talk about it all year, how smart [Harden] is and how he figures it out, and it just takes him a little bit to know that he can get to the rim. And they were switching everything, and he was just exploiting what was there. That’s what he does. If he’s not the best, I don’t know.”

The result: nine makes in 11 tries within the restricted area for the Rockets superstar, part of a steady march to the lane that saw Houston score a whopping 62 points in the paint on Sunday, 24 more than the Thunder.

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“We’ve been preaching that all year,” Harden told Aldridge after the game. “Obviously, we have a lot of 3-point shooters, but if we aren’t making shots, we’ve still got to find ways to win. We’ve done it during the regular season, and tonight was another example of it. They’re gonna hug up on our 3-point shooters? We’re gonna kill them in the paint.”

And so, despite a Rockets club that just set an NBA record for 3-pointers made in a season going just 10-for-33 from long range, Houston still feasted on the OKC defense. Centers Clint Capela and Nene combined for 29 points on 14-for-17 shooting, and with Oklahoma City’s bigs drawn away from the paint trying to corral Houston’s ball-handlers on switches, the Rockets absolutely crushed the Thunder after the 14 offensive rebounds they collected:

“Our turnovers and offensive rebounds, the second-chance points, that’s what really killed us,” said Oklahoma City center Adams after the game. “Second half was, it just came down to […] just the reads. The bigs, and especially me, were just, like, trash on the reads on the pick-and-rolls. We were absolute garbage. So, got to go back to the drawing board and have a look at how we can better that for Game 2.

“[…] They were just finding the big man [rolling to the rim after the screen] or they were just finding floaters. That’s just two things. I mean, you have to take away at least one, right? Just got to go back and look at video, see where our positioning is, see where we can get better in terms of footwork and communication, where the guards are, where the help side can come from. All that stuff.”

After a 31-point drubbing that’s tied for the fifth-most-lopsided loss in Thunder/Sonics franchise history, there’s plenty for Oklahoma City to review and try to correct before tipoff of Game 2 at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday night. The bad news for the Thunder: teams that have gotten blown out like this in the opening game of a playoff series haven’t fared too well over the rest of the series.

There is, however, a silver lining:

Last year’s Thunder team was able to pull off that massive turnaround thanks in part to a certain former MVP. (And Dion Waiters!) This year’s model will have to find other answers, starting with getting Westbrook unlocked and, ideally, finding some supplementary sources of points.

Shooting guard Victor Oladipo shot just 1-for-12 from the field in a nightmarish postseason debut. Enes Kanter scored eight points in 16 1/2 minutes, but gave away many more than that as the Rockets repeatedly torched him in the pick-and-roll. Roberson chipped in 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting, making four of his six 3-point tries, but it’s unlikely that OKC can count on getting that kind of injection of offense from a 26 percent career 3-point shooter who averaged 6.6 points per game this season.

Despite all that went wrong on Sunday, though, Westbrook sounded unsurprisingly unconcerned.

“Regardless of whether you win by 20, two or 40, it doesn’t matter,” he said during his postgame press conference. “It’s still one-zero, and we’ve got to be ready to come back and play for the next one.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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