LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Elimination in the bubble feels personal. There’s a whole to-do list.
Teams have to prepare to leave their hotel rooms, where they’ve been living for nearly two months, to get out of the bubble. Before a possible elimination in Game 6, Chris Paul said, he had to start packing bags.
“We’re not ready to go yet,” he said Monday night, after his Oklahoma City Thunder had forced Game 7.
In the West, two knock-down, drag-out series are circling their conclusion, and between Houston and Oklahoma City will emerge the Lakers’ second-round opponent.
If you’re a Lakers fan tuning in at 6 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN trying to get a pulse for what will matter in this elimination game and beyond, here are three things to watch:
With 13 seconds remaining in Game 6, recently returned point guard Russell Westbrook committed a game-costing blunder: a bad pass meant for Robert Covington that gave up a chance to tie or win the game as the play clock wound down. It was brutal to watch, and a reminder of what has been a huge problem for the Rockets, who once commanded this series with a 2-0 lead.
The Rockets have a magic number: When they have 11 or fewer turnovers, they’re 3-0. When they have more than 11, they’re 0-3. Westbrook and James Harden combined for 12 turnovers last night, and since the opening two games when the Rockets just coughed it up seven times each, the Thunder have a better feel for how to position themselves in the Rockets’ pretty simple drive-and-kick scheme.
Oklahoma City has some tremendous instincts and length at key positions, and combined with Westbrook’s rust, they’ve been opportunistic, scoring 22 points off turnovers.
If the Rockets hope to emerge, they have to find a way to sharpen their ball security to what it was in the beginning of the series.
“We just weren’t sharp, and it happens, and we had a bad game,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But there’s not any magic formula that you can do.”
A lot has been made of Lugentz Dort, who has guarded the 2018 MVP for an estimated 24 minutes according to NBA tracking data, during which Harden has scored only nine points. But playing defense on Harden is like putting up a fence to stop lava flow: he’s usually going to destroy you. NBA tracking data also suggests that the Rockets have scored 100 points in 91 or so possessions as a team when Dort is guarding Harden, which is not too bad.
But Dort’s effect is to force Harden to trust teammates more, which has worked in moments like in Game 2 when he scored 21 points but the Rockets still won by 16. But on Monday, that proved to be detrimental late as the Thunder denied Harden the ball, leading to the fateful turnover by Westbrook, whose presence is intended to take pressure off Harden.
But it’s clear, based on shooting percentages and turnovers, that Harden is a much more trustworthy hand in late game situations. He has to be willing to take it on – no matter who is guarding him.
There’s an argument for Paul as one of the most entertaining figures of the playoffs so far, between his penchant for hitting big shots, to his petty gestures of gamesmanship, like patting Covington on the backside after nailing a 3-pointer in his face.
A wild stat: The Thunder averaged the most points (11.0 ppg) in the last five minutes of “clutch” games. Even though the Thunder generally cannot buy buckets shooting from the field, Paul and his team are undeniably successful in these tight ones, going 30-15 in the regular season. They also had a 97.5 defensive rating in clutch games, which was fourth-best in the regular season, and they had the best overall net rating in clutch situations (plus-24.5).
The Rockets are not far behind, with the third-best net rating in clutch games during the regular season, but their issue sometimes seems to be (as mentioned above) that two stars is one too many to decide who takes the last shot. Paul will always have the ball in his hands at the end of a game for the Thunder. The tandem of Harden and Westbrook is more up to interpretation – and while it has been mentioned often, it’s worth pointing out that neither has been to a Finals since 2012 when they were last teammates. Game 7s haven’t been either’s particular forte in recent years.
Then there’s the pure exhaustion factor that may creep in, as D’Antoni keeps tight rotations. Westbrook said he figures to be on a minutes restriction in Game 7, which might simplify things for Houston’s final minutes.