Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Three

Kevin Durant scores 41, Thunder take 3-0 lead, but Rockets show how Russell Westbrook’s injury could hurt Oklahoma City later


Kevin Durant swarmed Jeremy Lin as the Rockets point guard tried to call timeout early in the second quarter, hacking at the ball and Lin until a official granted the timeout. That play – intentionally similar to the one where Patrick Beverly injured Russell Westbrook in Game 3 – aggravated Lin’s chest injury, and he didn’t return.

The message was sent.

But it wouldn’t have mattered much unless the shot was sunk, too.

Durant scored his 39th, 40th and 41st points on a 3-pointer that bounced (higher than the backboard), bounced, bounced before finally falling to give the Thunder their last lead in a 104-101 Game 3 win over Houston. Oklahoma City led by as many as 26 points before the cracks sans Westbrook began to show.

The Thunder needed just 13 minutes to build a 25-point lead, and at that point, Durant had 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. For the rest of the game, he shot 6-for-20.

Working well or not, the Thunder ran their offense through Durant.

Durant took 23 shots per 36 minutes without Westbrook during the regular season. He matched that mark during the third quarter tonight and finished with 30 shots, his most in a playoff game.

Oklahoma City is still finding its way with Reggie Jackson, who got his first career start, and Derek Fisher. Jackson (14 points) played better individually, but the Thunder played better with Fisher, who stayed out of Durant’s way. Fisher had no turnovers in 24 minutes and was +14, and Jackson had three turnovers in 25 minutes and was –9.

However, The Rockets knew they couldn’t simply wait for the Thunder to self-destruct without Westbrook. Francisco Garcia (32 minutes) and Terrence Jones (17 minutes) played larger roles off the bench. Garcia actually played more tonight than he did in the first two games combined, and he reward Houston with 18 points, his most as a Rocket.

Beyond those seemingly preplanned changes, Houston’s in-game adjustments to its defense on Durant made the biggest difference. As the Rockets realized Oklahoma City’s offense had become so Durant-focused, they gave him greater attention.

The Rockets revealed a blueprint for slowing the Westbrook-less Thunder. Down 3-0, it’s probably too late for Houston to take advantage, but Scott Brooks faces the tall order of having Oklahoma City ready to counter the Clippers or Grizzlies, who will likely follow a similar gameplan in the second round.

James Harden (30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks) played very well, and though Chandler Parsons (21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with seven rebounds and seven assists) and Garcia were solid, it’s difficult for one star to carry his team without the help of another star.

That’s a lesson it might be too late for the Rockets to teach Durant, but it’s one he’ll learn soon enough.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told NBCSports.com. The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.