Sunday’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets marked a peculiar game where chunks of both fanbases — rooted for the other team! Why you may ask? Draft picks.
As a result of 2019’s blockbuster trade that saw Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul swap jerseys, Oklahoma City gathered some very lucrative picks — among those, Houston’s 2021 first-round pick. Originally, this draft choice seemed destined to dwell in the mid-to-late twenties. Now, with Harden and Westbrook gone, this pick has real value.
Houston’s only blanket for retaining this pick lies a 1-4 protection, making Vegas betters salivate. The Rockets with a loss against the Thunder (or any team) bolsters their shot at keeping their pick, a win, Oklahoma City shoots their numbers up. It’s a real test of failing in the now, but reaping benefits in the future — tanking.
None of the Thunder or Rockets players alike showed any signs of surrender over Sunday’s matchup, but ultimately Oklahoma City reigned victorious 114-112. The Thunder with the victory inflated their record to 18-24 on the season stuck in a tie with the Pelicans for the 11th and 12th seeds in the West. The Rockets with the loss have now fallen for the twentieth game straight, that’s good for the ninth-largest slippage all-time, and now they inch one game closer to the NBA’s bottom-dweller at 11-30.
The Thunder and Rockets remained deadlocked for the majority of the first, however a late 9-0 Thunder run to close the quarter posted Oklahoma City up 31-22. Extra possessions bolstered snowballed their lead to eclipse the quarter, manning a 16-8 rebound advantage through one. Mark Daigneault sprawled out a collection of players throughout the first, giving newcomer Svi Mykhailiuk his first points in a Thunder uniform.
Oklahoma City’s bench unit shot out the cannon to blast their lead as large as 13 four minutes into the period, dropping to a 66-62 advantage at the midway point. Houston kept their offense centralized from downtown (8-of-13 3pt FG), and from their charity stripe to ease their wounds, but a pass heavy offense from Mark Daigneault provided a multitude of options, with all nine Thunder players scoring. Svi Mykhailiuk led the charge with 7 quarter points, bouncing off screens and dribble-drives to dice up the defense, while names in Lu Dort, Isaiah Roby, and Justin Jackson snagged double-digit points by half.
The Houston Rockets settled into the second half, latching onto the Thunder for a one-possession game for the great portion of the period. A series of Aleksej Pokusevski triples changed the tides of the game as Oklahoma City amassed a 7-0 run in under a minute to propel themselves 90-85.
Isaiah Roby took a trip to the locker room in the third, wedging his wrist against the rim in an effort to corral a rebound.
Roby clocked back for Oklahoma City to start the quarter, walking on a tightrope for the first six minutes of the fourth, merely holding off Houson with a steady one-possession lead. Mark Daigneault tossed out a closing lineup of Maledon, Mykhailiuk, Dort, Pokusevski, and Roby in the final four minutes — it posted clear benefits. Svi dabbled back outside to the perimeter, providing much needed space for drives, and even allowing the 23-year-old to hit an Lu Dort for a right-wing three. What Oklahoma City’s closers couldn’t iron out was the defense, Houston’s three-point precision combined with a feisty John Wall launched the Rockets ahead 110-109 with a hair under three to play.
The Thunder struck back at the lead with a minute to go up 113-112 attempting to insert a dagger with a Lu Dort triple with 18 seconds to go — no dice. John Wall blazed up the court via a Victor Oladipo rebound, driving in for a right-handed layup, only to be rejected by Lu Dort. Oklahoma City reclaimed possession, jumping out a timeout for Aleksej Pokusevski to get hacked for the free throw line — 1-of-2. Down two John Wall sized up a 29-foot triple over Lu Dort, but it fell left iron — Thunder win.
Houston’s final play really stood testament to their entire performance, no one was on the same page. Rockets Head Coach Stephen Silas reinforced that message entering the media dismayed, rubbing his forehead, and keeping his talk to minimum postgame.
“This one hurts,” Silas said. He later went on to add Houston’s final play was meant to be a John Wall – Christian Wood pick-and-roll, obviously being canned for an improvised silencer.
The Thunder’s measly two-point win may seem insignificant on paper, but based on the circumstances they shined.
Oklahoma City entered Sunday with the second-youngest starting core of all-time averaging an age of 21 years and 36 days. Their core of Theo Maledon, Lu Dort, Aleksej Pokusevksi, Isaiah Roby, and Moses Brown, led the way for their diluted roster officially holding the NBA record for the youngest starting-five to win a game.
Lu Dort played an all-round game racking a team-high 23 points (10-22 FG), but his final two defensive stands have been all the rage around the 21-year-old.
Moses Brown had an all-around performance with 13 points and 14 rebounds (8 off.), but he made sure to let Dort hear it after the buzzer. “That was a heroic play. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was so clutch. I told Lu after the game, ‘you’re a monster, Lu,'” Brown said.
Svi Mykhaliuk had his breakout game in a Thunder uniform. The wing posted 15 points (6-of-11 FG), 4 rebounds, and 3 assists across 21 minutes, firing down 3-of-6 triples.
The newly acquired 23-year-old praised the group postgame, saying, “Great impression so far, great team, really close team.”
Other members of the roster in Isaiah Roby, Justin Jackson, and Theo Maledon rounded out their six double-digit scorer with 18, 15, and 12 points respectively.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (18-24) spring right back into action against another bottom-dweller in the West, facing the Minnesota Timberwolves (10-32.)