The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Sports

April 22, 2013

Thunder offer Rockets rude welcome to playoffs

ENID, Okla. — The clearest indication of the difference between regular-season NBA games and the playoffs came during the second half of Sunday night’s Oklahoma City-Houston game.

In March, a fan named James Dougherty hit a half-court shot to win $20,000 during OKC’s 103-83 win over Portland at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

As he celebrated his windfall, Dougherty, a television reporter from Missouri, was embraced by Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, whose enthusiastic hug knocked Dougherty to the court.

Sunday night, during game one of the Thunder’s Western Conference playoff series against the Houston Rockets, school counselor Larry Hill duplicated Dougherty’s feat, sinking a half-court bomb and earning $20,000.

Hill, looking for a little Thunder love, ran to the team’s bench and hugged Thabo Sefalosha, who looked decidedly uncomfortable, backing away from the happy winner. The rest of the team ignored the whole scene, instead listening intently to coach Scott Brooks discussing game strategy.

The Thunder were only leading by 23 at the time.

Welcome to the playoffs.

Actually, Houston should welcome Hill into its huddle. At least he can shoot.

The Thunder, whose approach seemed lackadaisical at times in the closing days of the regular season as they were 10-5 in their last 15 games, served notice they were not fooling around as they thoroughly dismantled Houston, beating the Rockets 120-91 in game one of their playoff series.

Oh, yeah, and they made life distinctly uncomfortable for their former teammate, James Harden. The Beard, traded from the Thunder to the Rockets last fall, had 20 points, but on only six of 19 shooting. The last time the two teams played, Harden poured in 46. And he was booed by the same Oklahoma City fans who used to adore him, save for one short, skinny kid in a Harden jersey and a beard made up of cotton balls dyed black. Former Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka even rudely swatted away one of the Beard’s shot attempts.

Welcome to the playoffs.

The Thunder likewise were not very hospitable to the master of Linsanity, Jeremy Lin. He scored 29 points in the Rockets’ last meeting with OKC, but was held by Russell Westbrook to just four points, four assists and four turnovers. Meanwhile, Westbrook scored 19, dished out 10 assists and notched eight rebounds.

Welcome to the playoffs.

Not that the Thunder played perfectly, mind you. They napped through part of the second quarter when the Rockets rallied to tie, but woke up cranky, going on a 14-1 run and taking a 60-47 halftime lead. Houston remains a potent offensive team, the second-highest- scoring team in the league in the regular season. But the Thunder’s defense distrupted the Rockets’ flow, forcing them into a series of contested jumpers, most of which didn’t fall, if they even drew iron.

Ibaka was a force, blocking three shots and pulling down seven rebounds, while scoring 17 points with some surprising mid-range jumpers. Kevin Martin, who came to the Thunder in the Harden trade and has replaced him as the team’s sixth man, scored 16 points in 26 minutes. Even Derek Fisher, the ageless wonder, poured in three three-pointers to finish with nine points, then spent the closing minutes of the game in earnest discussion with Durant, perhaps passing along some of the wisdom he has accumulated in his 230 career playoff games.

Undoubtedly one nugget of that wisdom is one game does not a playoff series make, a fact Durant and his teammates are undoubtedly aware.

And as the happy crowd filed out of Chesapeake Energy Arena late Sunday night, perhaps the little boy in the Harden jersey snoozing on his daddy’s shoulders was dreaming of what could await the Thunder if they continue to play as they did in game one.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.

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