OKLAHOMA CITY — The slide started with a layup from MVP favorite James Harden. Then, a corner 3 from Houston glue guy P.J. Tucker, an alley-oop from Harden to under-appreciated center Clint Capela and a 3 from nine-time All-Star Chris Paul.
It rarely stops once the Rockets get going. It didn’t come close to doing so during their 122-112 victory in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
The Rockets are prone to onslaughts like no other team east of Oakland, Calif. They showed that with just over seven minutes to go in the third quarter. They led the Thunder just 64-61 on a night when both teams struggled with turnovers and OKC gritted its way back into the game with fast-break basketball.
The Thunder had adjusted their pick-and-roll defense for the final couple of quarters. The Rockets still attacked. By the end of the separation that started with Harden gliding to the rim untouched — no help there to deter or disrupt or anything — they led 79-64: a 15-3 sprint.
And the biggest problem for the Thunder, who have not beaten a projected playoff team since trouncing Golden State on Feb. 6, was just how easy it all looked.
“We all have to sit down and watch that tomorrow, really break it down and see what was the breakdowns that we had,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Offensively and defensively.”
The Thunder stacked together some baskets of their own, pulling within eight after the Rockets’ advantage climbed to 19, but it was never close enough for discomfort on an evening when Houston drained 17 of 33 3-pointers, the team’s staple.
The Rockets are pacing to break the record for 3-point makes in a season, one they already set a year ago. It showed during the mid-third quarter run. And that, in some ways, is the point: the Thunder and Rockets both entered this season as secondarily elite teams to the Warriors, who have won the Western Conference three years in a row.
Oklahoma City and Houston were supposed to be right there — along with San Antonio — as the groups that kind of, sort of could have a smidgen of a chance to make it a little bit interesting against a Warriors squad everyone assumed to be the personification of basketball perfection.
The Rockets, now owners of a 16-game winning streak and the best record in the NBA at 50-13, went one way. The Thunder, who are seventh in the West and who Houston bounced into a tie in the loss column with ninth-place Denver, have plunged in the other.
“I thought our guys competed tonight, really the entire game,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought in the second half, we got spread out a little bit from the 3-point line.”
It was true. And the 20 Thunder turnovers didn't help on a night when the two teams combined for 42 giveaways.
After the Thunder needed overtime to beat a tanking Dallas team last week, Russell Westbrook made a point of the strong wins in OKC’s past.
“What's our record against the best teams in the league?" he asked after one reporter inquired about the Thunder's recent close matches against bad teams.
The Thunder have beaten Golden State, Toronto and even Houston, who they topped in a five-point win on Christmas, a game in which Paul didn’t play. They’re also now only 19-18 against teams currently over .500. They're 8-9 since shooting guard Andre Roberson's season-ending knee injury.
Westbrook feasted early Tuesday in the mid-range, just where Houston wants him to reside, and finished with 32 points on 27 shots to go with four rebounds, seven assists and nine turnovers. Paul George finished with 17 points on 16 attempts. Anthony’s 19 first-half points took him to 23 on 18 shots.
Turnovers aside, the Rockets just scored easier. A team that’s pacing to break offensive records looked exactly like its reputation would imply.
“Just stay positive. Got a lot of games left, nights left to play basketball,” Westbrook said. “Go out and compete. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.