By Jeff Latzke, AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY —
Coach Kevin McHale was curious to see how his group of playoff newcomers would respond when the Houston Rockets returned to the postseason for the first time in four years.
Now that that’s over with and the jitters should be gone, it’s time for the Rockets to try and tackle the matter of solving the Oklahoma City Thunder’s versatile defense.
The league’s second-highest scoring offense was held 15 points below its regular-season average and made just 36 percent of its shots in a 120-91 blowout loss in Game 1 Sunday night. In less than 20 minutes of game action, the Thunder turned a tie game into a 33-point lead and sent the Rockets back to Houston searching for answers before Game 2 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night.
“You can’t really make that many adjustments at this time right now because we know their game plan and they know ours,” Rockets power forward Greg Smith said on a conference call Monday.
“We’ve just got to go out there, just play harder, be more focused and play more hungry.”
There are some schematic changes to be made, too.
Smith acknowledged Houston wasn’t expecting Oklahoma City to switch practically every screen, allowing forward Serge Ibaka or center Kendrick Perkins to defend the Rockets’ guards on the perimeter.
“They would switch a big on us and, as opposed to moving the ball and trying to let the ball help you with the matchups, we were just trying to go 1-on-1,” McHale said. “They ended up getting us to take a lot of contested jump shots over the top. ... We didn’t have nearly enough ball movement.”
That was exactly how the Thunder wanted it to happen.
“It makes them be kind of selfish,” Ibaka said after the Thunder’s workout, which focused more on a film session, with only a brief practice on the court.
“When we switch against teams like that, that makes them go a lot of 1-on-1. That’s good for us.”
McHale said the Rockets found issues whether they were going against one of Oklahoma City’s bigger lineups, for instance with Ibaka and Perkins both on the court, and with smaller groups that featured Kevin Durant at power forward.
The fracturing on offense wasn’t entirely new.
“We’ve gone through periods of that all year long. I think that’s part of the growth of this team,” McHale said. “We’ve got our way out of it. We’re going to have to get our way out of it” in Game 2.
Houston point guard Jeremy Lin was hyper-critical of himself after his first career playoff game, and McHale added Lin’s counterpart, All-Star Russell Westbrook, was allowed to go just about “wherever he wanted” with the ball and make straight-line drives to the rim from beyond the 3-point line.
Just how much of the Rockets’ first-game flop was related to nerves remains to be seen. Center Omer Asik was the only starter who wasn’t making his first career playoff start, and three had never been in the postseason before.
The Thunder, coming off of a loss in the NBA Finals last season, didn’t want to be too satisfied with their dominant Game 1 performance and talked about finding ways to play even better.
“I think the best thing about this team is that we’re focused on what the task at hand is,” Westbrook said. “I think if we come out every night and play the way we played (Sunday) night, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
With such a gap between the first games, veteran Derek Fisher — a five-time NBA champion — said it feels less like a series and more like there’s one game to prepare for. Game 3 isn’t until Saturday night in Houston.
“Reasonable expectations are to ask more of yourself and ask more of the team, in the sense of not believing that you can just call that up again and duplicate that type of game,” Fisher said. “You have to take the good and the bad of what happened, learn from it and then play Game 2 as though Game 1 never existed.”
Oklahoma City proved all season long that it can score just as fast as Houston, finishing a fraction behind the Rockets’ 106-point average and in third place in the regular season. But the Thunder also ranked second in the league by limiting opponents to 42.5 percent shooting.
“That’s the way you beat this team is to impact their ability to score the ball, to score in excess of 100 points, to shoot the ball well from the perimeter,” Fisher said. “So if we want to win the series, then we’ll ask ourselves to keep doing that.”