Saturday night’s Game 3 was essentially a must-win for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the way they started off the matchup, it certainly did not look like it. The offense was out of whack, and it did not look like head coach Billy Donovan had made any adjustments, but by the middle of the 4th quarter, OKC had taken the lead.
The Rockets were not going to let the Thunder get by easily, however, and after Chris Paul missed a layup at the buzzer, the game went into overtime. With 5 fouls, James Harden fouled out on the opening defensive possession, and it was smooth sailing for OKC the rest of the way as they rolled to a 119-107 victory.
Dort the Denier
It’s safe to say that Thunder GM Sam Presti got his money’s worth when he signed undrafted free agent Luguentz Dort initially to a two-way contract before finally giving him a full contract with Oklahoma City. Dort worked his way into the starting lineup for good reason, and his defensive capabilities are undoubtedly going to keep him in the league for many years.
In his NBA Playoffs debut on Thursday in game 2, Dort held James Harden to 2-for-12 (16.7%) from the floor, including 1-for-9 (11.1%) from downtown. Harden was kept in check by Dort yet again in Game 3 knocking down just 3-of-14 (21.4%) from the floor.
It’s only been two games on Harden, but Luguentz Dort has proven himself time and time again as he has consistently drawn the toughest defensive matchup. His offense still has a ways to go, as he has not shot well so far in the series, but he was the one to foul James Harden out of the game in overtime, so that was a bit of redemption.
With absolutely zero doubt in my mind, Luguentz Dort is the best defender James Harden has faced in a while, and the Thunder would be lost without the rookie.
Small Ball is the Answer
The Houston Rockets have the smallest lineup in the NBA, and it has proven to be difficult for opposing teams. They shoot a lot of threes, and they barely ever take any midrange shots. Many have advocated for the Thunder to go small to try to match up play style, but Billy Donovan has stubbornly played a center for every single minute of the series. Well, he was doing that until the very end of Game 3.
With just 24 seconds left in the game, and the Thunder trailing by 3, Steven Adams checked out of the game for Danilo Gallinari to play alongside Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, and Dennis Schröder. SGA hit a clutch corner three that would put OKC up by 1, but the Rockets would hit a free throw to force overtime.
That lineup would remain for the entirety of overtime as Adams was kept out of the game with a knee contusion, and the small ball rotation ended up outscoring Houston 15-3 to put away the game for good.
After the game, Billy Donovan made it clear that he could have put Adams back in, but he liked what he saw out of the 5 he had in the game already.
While the sample size is extremely small (no pun intended), it’s fair to say that Donovan should heavily consider starting off Game 4 in the same manner that OKC ended Game 3.
Thunder Player of the Game
After an abysmal first two games of the series, Dennis Schröder rebounded in a big way in Game 3. In Games 1 and 2, Schröder managed a total of 19 points on 8-of-24 (33.3%) from the field, including 2-of-9 (22.2%) from downtown.
Schröder turned that around tonight as he tallied a career playoff high of 29 points on 10-of-23 (43.5%). He did struggle from three, making just 2-of-10 (20.0%) from downtown, but he also handed out 5 assists, grabbed 5 rebounds, and managed 2 steals.
The Thunder relies so heavily on Schröder’s spark coming off the bench, and while he did not do that at all in Games 1 and 2, he lived up to the challenge in Game 3, and it made all the difference in the long run.
There’s Still Life
The Thunder helped their chances significantly by picking up a win in Game 3, but they still have some work to do. Game 4 will be a big one for OKC, and while it’s not technically a must-win, you might as well count it as one because a 3-1 comeback has only happened a couple of times, including when the Golden State Warriors came back against the Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.
Tip-off for Game 4 on Monday is set for 3 PM CT, and it will be televised on TNT and Fox Sports Oklahoma. It will also be broadcast on the radio at WWLS 98.1 FM.