Houston Rockets, NBA Playoffs, Oklahoma City Thunder

James Harden is the defensive hero, smothering the Thunder in Game 7

The Houston Rockets are built to bury opponents with a barrage of 3-pointers but there swarming defense game them the edge over the Thunder in Game 7.

Across seven games, the Rockets and Thunder were ultimately separated by just five points. The tightness of that battle was certainly reflected in Game 7, where neither team ever managed a double-digit lead and a game-saving block was enough to protect the final margin.

The Thunder overachieved like crazy this season. They weren’t expected to make the playoffs but were playing well enough at the trade-deadline to force a change in direction and abandon any plans to trade veterans like Chris Paul, Steven Adams or Danilo Gallinari. They deserve respect and celebration and should have a fascinating offseason in front of them.

For the Rockets, they have skated on the brink of disaster and survived. They get exactly one day off before their series against the Lakers begins, a chance to redeem their struggles here and get one step closer to the ultimate prize.

Final

Houston Rockets

104

Oklahoma City Thunder

102

What else did you miss in Game 7 between the Rockets and Thunder?

Meme-able moment: Harden wins with defense

Harden’s offensive struggles in Game 7 were visceral — 4-of-15 from the field, 1-of-9 on 3-pointers, 4 turnovers — but he still made the winning play…on defense. Lu Dort had what looked to be a wide-open 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds left, a chance to put the Thunder in front for good. But Harden closed the distance and swatted back the shot.

This moment will resonate, not just because of the stakes or because of the irony of Harden winning a game with his defense. It just gave us a classic meme template to work with.

Strategic advantage: Houston’s defensive energy 

The defensive results might not look great here but the underlying process was sound. The Thunder were able to keep it close by hitting 16-of-34 3-pointers but 12 of those were taking by Lu Dort (more on that later), which was absolutely part of Houston’s plan. The Rockets gave up 16 wide-open 3-point attempts but 10 of them were to Dort. If he hits anywhere close to his season average, this is a blowout win.

In addition, Houston surrendered just 30 points in the paint (Oklahoma City averaged 45.7 per game during the regular season) and forced 21 turnovers. Nothing was working the way they wanted on offense but they responded with swarming energy at the other end and it was enough to put them over the top.

Unsung hero: Lu Dort rising to the challenge

I can not be overstated how remarkable Lu Dort’s play has been in the past two games. He earned his chances early in the series with some of the most effective defense anyone has played on James Harden in the past two years. But the Rockets made a point of exploiting his offensive deficiencies — he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent on 3-pointers during the regular season.

As the series went on, the Rockets worked to make him unplayable by giving him tons of space every time he touched the ball and daring him to shoot. The strategy hit a tipping point in Game 5 where the Rockets goaded him into 16 shot attempts, the most on the Thunder. He finished 3-of-16 and 0-of-9 from beyond the arc. It was the kind of game that can crush the soul of a young player, all the weaknesses in their game laid bare and directly contributing to a loss for their team.

But Dort didn’t let that happen. He was 5-of-9 in Game 6, his first time in double-figures in the series, and he followed that up with 30 points in Game 7. That’s more than he’d scored in any game during his rookie season, and a mark he surpassed just once during his lone season at Arizona State.

Houston double-dog-dared him to make open shots and over the final two games of the series this shaky outside shooter was 8-of-18 from beyond the arc and 7-of-15 on the attempts where there the Rockets left him wide open. In the end, it wasn’t enough. But if Dort had risen to the challenge, the Thunder aren’t even playing a Game 7, let alone having a chance to win in the final moments.

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