The Oklahoma City Thunder have been the NBA's best late-game team all season long, and as it turns out, they might be the best late-series team as well. They looked dead in the water after the Houston Rockets took the first two games of this series by a total of 28 points, but thanks to some schematic adjustments and better shooting luck, the Thunder have officially tied this series up at two games apiece after the Thunder took Game 4, 117-114.
Oklahoma City has taken James Harden's best punch. He had 32 points in this one, and has topped 30 in three of the four games so far. But, as always, Oklahoma City's three guards were spectacular. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder scored 74 combined points in this game, and the switching Rockets have struggled to contain them in the mid-range and at the basket.
Now, this is a whole new series. Three games left. Whoever wins two first moves on to face, presumably, the No. 1 seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. If the Rockets don't right the ship soon, that team is going to be the Thunder.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from Oklahoma City's series-tying effort.
1. The Thunder are beating the Rockets at their own game
Necessity forced Billy Donovan's hand in Game 3. With Steven Adams out, he had no choice but to go small. The center-less unit of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Lu Dort and Danilo Gallinari outscored the Rockets 15-3 in overtime. In Game 4, he went to it intentionally down the stretch. If you exclude the garbage time buzzer-beater by Danuel House, the Thunder outscored the Rockets by five in the final four minutes and change of this game. Oklahoma City is giving Houston a taste of their own small-ball medicine, and it's working.
And it's working on the same principles that have buoyed Houston. While the group as a whole isn't unstoppable from behind the arc, that increased shooting clears the lane for drives (though Paul uses that space primarily for his mid-range jumpers). Unlike the Rockets, all five of those players are dangerous as dribblers, so it makes the offense less predictable. The unit becomes more switchable than its bigger counterparts, but Dort fights off the wrong switches so well that it doesn't leave players like Gallinari on an island against Harden.
They aren't playing small nearly as much as Houston does. Nerlens Noel is still getting minutes, and the Rockets have been unable to play Adams off of the floor. But it's a weapon that the Thunder largely avoided during the season, and without much tape on it, the Rockets haven't been able to find a real answer to counter it yet.
2. Houston sorely misses Russell Westbrook
Houston reaped most of the benefits of playing without Russell Westbrook in the first three games of this series. The increased space made life easier for everyone else offensively. Their defense was tighter without him as a leaky valve. There were more shots to go around, keeping everyone engaged. But that flipped in Game 4. Virtually everything that went wrong for the Rockets can be traced back to Westbrook's absence in some way.
Houston scored only seven fast-break points in Game 4. Oklahoma City has had complete control over the pace in a way that would not be possible with a healthy Westbrook on the floor. They took only 10 free-throws, another situation that Westbrook in attack mode might have resolved. Most distressingly, James Harden looked exhausted at the end of the game. He missed multiple 3-pointers short, typically a symptom of exhaustion in the legs. Chris Paul attacked him on switches relentlessly.
Westbrook's overall impact on winning varies wildly by matchup. There is a legitimate argument to be made that Houston, in certain situations, is just better off putting four shooters around James Harden. But what has become apparent in this series is that the Thunder have figured out that version of the Rockets. They need Westbrook back now if they want to turn the tide.
3. The wild, wild West
With Houston's Game 4 loss, there is a conceivable scenario in which the Los Angeles Lakers lose tonight and suddenly, through four games, not a single Western Conference favorite leads their series with only three possible games remaining. Considering how chalk the first-round tends to be, how dominant the Lakers and Clippers were all season and how high Houston's upside remains, that would have been inconceivable before the shutdown.
The Utah Jazz will likely knock off the Denver Nuggets, but the rest of the favorites are still in good shape... for now. The Thunder, Mavericks and Blazers won't make life easy on the Rockets, Clippers and Lakers, respectively. For once, we might see a genuine shakeup heading into the second round.