For one game, the Houston Rockets were just fine without Russell Westbrook. On Tuesday, the Rockets beat the Thunder in every facet of the game en route to a 123-108 victory to take a 1-0 lead in their first-round series.
With Westbrook out with a quad strain (reports indicate it's getting better), Harden was sensational with 37 points and 11 rebounds on 12-of-22 shooting, including 6-of-13 from beyond the arc, and the Rockets had five players score in double figures. In addition to Harden, Jeff Green was superb, finishing with 22 points. Eric Gordon had 21, Ben McLemore had 14 and P.J. Tucker added 11.
Houston made 20 3-pointers as a team, outscoring OKC by 21 from deep.
Danilo Gallinari led the Thunder with 29 points, while Chris Paul fell one assist shy of a triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and nine dimes -- but a lot of Paul's scoring came when the game had already gotten away in the second half. OKC looked dead on both ends, and will have to figure out how to move the ball better to crack Houston's defense, which was tremendous all night.
In fact, let's talk about that Houston defense for a second. This was championship effort, and the switching really stagnated the OKC offense. Houston's rotations were on point all night. Guys were flying to shooters, pinching down from the wings to cut off seemingly every driving gap. OKC just couldn't get any space or penetration to collapse the defense, and Houston maintained this energy for full possessions, multiple efforts, communication, the whole deal.
Houston is thought of as an offensive team, their small-ball lineups discussed through the lens of scoring and wide-open lanes ripe for penetration. But when their switching defense is clicking, they can be a monster. It is very tough to find open looks when they are tied together.
OKC didn't help itself by succumbing to the switching. They have to move more, both ball and player. Paul was way too passive as a scorer for way too long, and by the time he really started pushing the scoring envelope, the game was over. That can't be the case in Game 2.
If you're Houston, you absolutely love what you saw from Gordon in this game. When he's playing aggressive like that, looking for his offense, Westbrook's absence is manageable in the short term. By the time Westbrook gets back, if the Rockets are getting these kinds of peripheral performances, they're going to be hard to stop. It becomes simple: Harden draws doubles, Westbrook attacks the open space and either finishes himself of kicks to shooters who are in rhythm.
It's just one game, but in a series that many saw as arguably the most evenly matched of the first round, the Rockets looked like the clear better team on both ends and one that could be dangerous deep into these playoffs.