The Oklahoma City Thunder lost 101-98 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in San Antonio Sunday night.
The Thunder led 71-62 after three quarters but quickly saw that lead evaporate in the fourth and they would fall behind by as many as 10 points.
James Harden did not have his best game severely struggling from the field and was unable to get to the free throw line even once for the first time all season.
Harden finished with 17 points and was 7-for-17 from the field but made two threes in the final minute when the game was already decided to inflate those numbers.
Harden is maybe the most important player for the Thunder and their championship hopes. When he raises his game, the Thunder take on another level of awesome. We saw it in Game 4 against Dallas and we saw it twice in the Lakers series.
Coming into this series the pick-and-roll game for both teams was going to be a crucial point. Harden is the Thunder’s best pick-and-roll offensive player but last night the Spurs did a great job of containing him.
The Spurs’ plan of attack was to allow the Thunder ball handler to get around the screen and not hedge out. The big man, either Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, would then allow space for the Thunder ball handler luring them often to drive out of control at the rim.
The Spurs’ big men did a great job of not fouling and you could tell Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were not ready for this and thus did not find any rhythm in these spots.
Harden especially was less than his usual self in the pick-and-roll game. He was looking to draw contact and get to the line early on like he did against Dallas and the Lakers but he was not getting calls and deservedly so as the Spurs were in great position and ready for Harden’s moves.
Harden likes going left the most and the Spurs know this. When Harden was in spots where he was looking to get to the rim you saw the Spurs defenders shadowing him and anticipating his eurostep to the left.
Harden said after the game that the Spurs didn’t do anything special on defense to take him away. He said he just was missing layups and that was it.
There is some truth to that for not just Harden but the entire Thunder team. They were missing shots they normally get more often than usual and that eventually led to the entire offense getting out of rhythm and turning so isolation heavy.
The Spurs won Game 1 and won the battle within the game taking the Thunder out of their rhythm. But Oklahoma City knows what to expect now and they should adjust accordingly for Game 2 and have a better offensive game at least.
Harden will continue to be the most important player in this series for the Thunder. If he can return to the form he was in the first two rounds the Thunder will win this series.