New on Sports Illustrated: Thunder hope to even series against Rockets

August 24, 2020 at 05:58AM

In a series featuring two superstar guards who have combined for 18 All-Star Game appearances plus 14 All-NBA teams, an undrafted rookie has somewhat improbably become the headliner.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort has gained renown for his defensive performance against Rockets standout James Harden following his series debut in Game 2. After Harden torched the Dort-less Thunder for 37 points on 12-for-22 shooting in the series opener, Dort returned and subsequently harassed Harden into 5-for-24 3-point shooting in Games 2 and 3, with the Thunder squeezing out a 119-107 victory Saturday that buoyed their series hopes.

With Game 4 set for Monday near Orlando, Oklahoma City will pin its hopes on squaring the series at two games apiece on its defensive prowess, with the individual effort from Dort central to those aspirations.

"It's a fact that the way we play defense, we want to show our hands as much as we can and that's what we've got to do the whole game," Dort said. "Really, I feel like we did a good job of showing our hands and not fouling them."

Harden was exceptional in Game 3, pouring in 38 points, seven rebounds and eight assists while committing just one turnover. But Harden missed 10 of 13 3-pointers with Dort as his primary defender, and when Harden fouled out for the first time this season it was Dort who drew the decisive whistle, baiting Harden with a pump fake that landed Harden on the bench with his sixth foul at the 4:07 mark of overtime. The Rockets soon faltered without their linchpin.

The Thunder won't change their approach, not with Dort making life tough for Harden and not after the three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder combined for 78 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists. Critically, the Thunder imposed their toughness on the Rockets, an edge that carried them through the regular season and an attitude that has the potential to shift a series that once seemed decidedly in favor of Houston.

"You've got to have emotional toughness," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I think there's a lot of physical toughness in the game as well that you have to have. If you look at the fact that we got a win (Saturday), we're playing again (Monday) afternoon and we've got to do it all over again. So there were some things that we did well, there are some things that we still can improve upon."

The Rockets were left lamenting two factors that directly contributed to their demise: a series of critical defensive lapses down the stretch of regulation and their wayward perimeter shooting.

Harden wasn't alone in his struggles from behind the arc, with the Rockets missing 35 of their 50 3-point attempts. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker shot a combined 3 for 15 from deep while Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore, two key cogs with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook sidelined by a quad strain, finished 0 for 6 from deep. For all the lauding of the Thunder defense, the Rockets misfired on numerous open looks that could have swung momentum in their favor.

"It's a matter of we didn't hit shots and we didn't finish the game up," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said.

One late defensive gaffe proved critical, although there were others that proceeded Danuel House Jr. helping off Gilgeous-Alexander in the corner on a Paul drive with Harden defending. Harden, laden with five fouls, lagged to provide Paul space knowing he had Jeff Green sagging off Dort (0 for 6 on 3s) and providing help. House had little cause to drift over and vacate Gilgeous-Alexander, who nailed the 3 with 13.8 seconds left that gave the Thunder the lead.

"I think throughout the course of the game we just made too many mental mistakes and gave them opportunities to score," Harden said. "And it's that simple."

--Field Level Media

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