Skeptics emerged concerning the Houston Rockets and their ability to advance as Russell Westbrook ruled out for the start of the team’s first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After Game 1, however, some of that disbelief likely vanished, with the Rockets governing the action practically from start to finish on the way to a comfortable 123-108 victory.
Despite strong aggressive pedigree on both sides, the early minutes of the game were blemished by inefficiency. Houston did end the first quarter with a display, taking an eight-point lead after 12 minutes, but the Rockets weren’t at their best and the Thunder visibly struggled.
Oklahoma City shot just 6-for-20 in the first quarter, including 0-for-7 from Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the Thunder also committed five turnovers in the opening frame.
Making matters worse for the Thunder, the Rockets scored the first nine points of the second quarter, taking full control with a 37-20 lead.
Oklahoma City did begin to show some life on the offensive end but, just as that took place, Houston began to ramp up its explosiveness on the offensive side. A pair of three-pointers from Ben McLemore and P.J. Tucker, along with a layup from James Harden, capped a Houston push to give the Rockets a 20-point edge midway through the second quarter.
Houston’s lead grew to as many as 21 points, but the Thunder did respond to make things interesting before halftime. Led by the battle-tested five-man group of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams, the Thunder zoomed to a 12-2 run to slash the margin to 60-49.
The Rockets did push the margin back to 16 by the break, remaining in control of the proceedings. Much of that success was predicated on efficient offense, with Harden scoring 15 points and Eric Gordon adding 16 points in the first half. Houston buried 11 three-pointers and 13 free throws in the first 24 minutes, leaning on their analytically-inclined approach. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s three leading guards combined to shoot 5-for-19 from the floor, helping to explain their deficit on the scoreboard.
Though a technical foul leading into halftime gifted a free point to the Rockets before the third quarter even began, the Thunder began chipping away at the margin with improved offense. Oklahoma City scored 16 points in four minutes, slashing the lead to ten, and that put Houston on notice.
On cue, the Rockets put the pedal to the floor, zooming to a 13-2 run that stretched their advantage to 98-75 late in the third quarter.
After that explosion, the Thunder never seriously threatened again, although Oklahoma City did cut the deficit to 13 with four minutes to play. Ultimately, crunch time came and went without drama, with the Rockets cruising to a series-opening victory.
Despite a slow start, offense wasn’t the overall problem for the Thunder, with Gallinari scoring 29 points and Oklahoma posting a perfectly respectable offensive rating. However, the defensive end of the floor was challenging, which could inspire dread when remembering Westbrook is due to return at some point in the near future.
Harden finished with 37 points and 11 rebounds, and he was helped by big nights from Eric Gordon (21 points) and Jeff Green (22 points, six rebounds). All told, the Rockets buried 20 three-pointers and scored more than 1.2 points per possession, both of which are disturbing trends for the Thunder as the series moves forward.
The Rockets and Thunder will return to action on Thursday with a 3:30 pm ET tip-off in Orlando, with the Thunder looking to avenge this defeat and even the series.