Thunder star Chris Paul shouldered the blame following Thursday’s 111-98 loss, which gave the Houston Rockets a 2-0 lead in their first-round Western Conference series despite not having Russell Westbrook in either game.
Paul admitted that he has “gotta do more.”
“Straight up. It’s that simple,” Paul said. “That run they went on in the beginning of the fourth quarter, that can’t happen. Gotta be better. I gotta be better. That’s the tough thing, to know how hard we fought, guys worked hard. We put ourselves in position to win that game, and I gotta be better for us.”
In 37 minutes, Paul scored 14 points on 6-for-15 shooting with 6 rebounds and 2 assists.
“In a regular world, not COVID, not a bubble, we’d be going back home for two games,” Paul said. “We gotta take it one game at a time, learn from this game, and hell, I gotta show up. That simple.”
The Thunder led 80-77 when Paul opened the final frame with a midrange jumper. But with James Harden sitting for all but two points of it, the Rockets scorched OKC with a 17-0 run to take control of the game, and the series.
“Unbelievable, man. That was the game right there,” Harden said. “The guys just took it upon themselves to guard. We felt in a sense that Oklahoma City was getting tired, and we kept pressing the gas on them. That was a game-changer right there for us.”
The Thunder were boosted by the return of rookie defensive stopper Lu Dort, who missed Game 1 because of a knee strain. Dort was the primary defender on Harden and played a significant part in his shooting struggles. Harden finished with 21 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 2-for-11 from 3-point range.
But Harden adjusted, shifting to the role of facilitator, leaning on the Rockets’ role players to score. Eight Rockets saw playing time in Game 2, and seven scored in double figures.
“As you get deeper, you need your team. You need guys to play well, you need guys to hit big shots, make big plays defensively and offensively,” Harden said. “Tonight I wasn’t playing well — or I didn’t shoot the ball well — so it just looked like it was more highlighted. But guys, my teammates, have been playing well all year.”
The loss was deflating for the Thunder, who made adjustments after struggling with the Rockets’ small-ball quirks in Game 1. The offense improved in stretches, but still saw extended offensive droughts. And despite holding Harden in check, the team walks away in an 0-2 series hole.
“We communicated a lot better coming into this game, knew what our plan was, knew what we wanted to do. But I mean, no moral victories,” Paul said, his voice trailing off.
“Yeah, I just, uh, I don’t know,” he said. “My guys worked as hard we could, fought really hard and we put ourselves in position and I let this one get away from us.”
Asked what areas specifically he felt he should’ve been better in, Paul didn’t point at one thing.
“It’s a lot,” he said. “I’ll go back and look at the film, but I know what it is. It’s a lot.”
Paul has been the talisman for the Thunder all season, carrying the team both on and off the floor. His value has been felt most in promoting balance and chemistry, but asserting himself late in close games as he led the league in clutch-time scoring by a wide margin. The two games against Houston, though, haven’t been close enough for Paul to flex his crunchtime muscle. He finished Game 1 an assist short of a triple-double, but didn’t do much of his damage until the Thunder were trying to make a late comeback.
In Game 2, second-year rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander bounced back from a rough opening game, finishing with a playoff career-high 31 points on 9-for-17 shooting.
The Thunder are looking to Game 3 to try to find a way back into the series, where it shifts virtual home courts. Meanwhile, the Rockets are trying to put the pressure on and take complete control.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged being up 2-0 allows the team to feel less urgency in getting Westbrook back, but noted they wouldn’t be in any rush otherwise. The first two games were positive signs in being able to get by without Westbrook, who is out with a right quad strain, but for the Rockets to make a deep push, they know they’ll need him back. And they aren’t thinking that far ahead yet anyway.
“I just told the team that all we did was defend home court,” D’Antoni deadpanned. “Now we’ve got to go to Oklahoma City and play.”
Was the team buying that? No. I don’t understand, but they kind of laughed at me,” he said. “I don’t get it.”