Sure, James Harden finished fifth in the league in scoring this year, Chandler Parsons put up a LeBron-style line in Game 4 and Patrick Beverley has proven to be a major thorn in Scott Brooks' side over the past few games, but any major dude will tell you that the real key to stopping the Houston Rockets is slowing down their dominant center, Turkish delight Omer Asik.
So kudos to you, Thunder guards Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha, for standing together in the face of impending doom as Asik rolled to the cup after setting a screen for Harden at the right elbow midway through the second quarter of Wednesday's Game 5. I mean, the sheer force of the collision sent both Fisher and Sefolosha to the deck so immediately, forcefully and dramatically that it's remarkable the Oklahoma City defenders didn't just disintegrate into dust upon impact:
Such courage — which resulted in a charging call against Asik — will surely land these two brave Thunderers letters of commendation from the league office. Maybe with invoices inside.
Later in the game — which the underdog Rockets controlled throughout, trailing for a grand total of 16 seconds in the first quarter and leading by double-digits for large chunks of the second half — Thunder coach Brooks again turned his defense's attention to Asik, instructing his players to intentionally foul the center with Oklahoma City trailing by 10 and 6:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.
You can see the beginnings of the intentional fouling at the :45 mark of the video below:
Reams have been written about whether Hack-A-Whatever-His-Name-Is really makes sense when used against a foul shooter who's not all-time horrendous (guys like Ben Wallace, DeAndre Jordan and Andris Biedrins), given that even a 50 percent shooter stands to create one point per intentional-foul possession. When the free-throw percentages are north of a coin flip, you're talking about offering your opponent an opportunity to produce points at elite levels without much/any effort, which can counteract the intended points of the intentional foul strategy — to prevent the opponent from burning clock and to create more possessions for your own offense to score and close the gap.
It didn't pay off for Oklahoma City on Wednesday, as Asik went 8 for 12 from the line on his intentional freebies; the Thunder trailed 93-83 when Serge Ibaka took the first foul at the 5:53 mark of the fourth, and were down 101-92 after Durant took the last one at the 3:53 mark. Asik finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds in the Rockets' Harden-led 107-100 road win, which cut the Thunder's lead in the best-of-seven series to 3-2 and gives the Rockets a chance to pull even on their home court in Game 6 on Friday.
After the game, Thunder star Kevin Durant discussed the gambit, but couldn't quite place the target, as Nick Matthews noted on the Houston Chronicle's Ultimate Rockets blog:
Durant called the strategy — “Hack-A- … Whatever His Name Is.”
“We used hack-a …” he stumbled, trying to say Asik’s name, “whatever his name is, that kind of slowed the rhythm down a bit.”
It's hard to get too riled up about Durant's verbiage, considering basically every NBA announcer, commentator and writer seems to use a different pronunciation for the Houston center's name. (I'm pretty sure it's "Oh-mare Ah-sheik," but I could be wrong.) Also, Durant had just played 45 minutes of "I have to do everything without Russell Westbrook" ball, leading Oklahoma City with 36 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Sometimes you forget stuff when you're tired.
As for the "rhythm" thing, while it didn't do much for Oklahoma City on Wednesday — once the Thunder stopped fouling, the Rockets continued to run their offense and get dribble penetration, and iced matters on a Francisco Garcia 3-pointer with 1:39 left that put Houston back up 13 — it's worth noting that Brooks has decided to intentionally foul for that exact reason before. Brooks deployed a similar strategy during Game 2 of OKC's Western Conference finals series against the San Antonio Spurs last postseason, putting Spurs big man Tiago Splitter (who hit freebies at a 69 percent clip during the regular season, but began to struggle in the playoffs, making just 32 percent from the stripe in his eight playoff appearances before Game 2 against the Thunder) on the line with Oklahoma City down 16 in the third quarter.
It wound up not mattering much in-game — Splitter shot 5 for 10 from the line and Manu Ginobili hit a technical free throw, meaning the Spurs scored more points per possession this way than their season-long offensive stats suggested they would've if OKC had just played defense, and the deficit was still 16 points when Brooks abandoned the strategy. It did, however, seem to derail somewhat the offensive rhythm that made made the Spurs a juggernaut who'd won 19 straight heading into Game 2 — San Antonio never again achieved the same sort of flowing offensive freedom they displayed in the prior weeks (thanks in part to the strategic moves of Sefolosha switching onto Tony Parker and the Thunder beginning to pack the paint more determinedly to deter penetration) and OKC won the next four games to earn an NBA finals berth.
Whether the interruption gums up the works of a Houston offense that has been clicking pretty well over the past three games — they scored an average of 107.3 points per 100 possessions from Game 3 through Game 5, better than their season-long average (which was the sixth-best in the league) and, as Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News notes, came within a miraculous 3 by Durant of winning all three of those games — remains to be seen. But the fact that it came out at all sure seems to indicate that Brooks feels like his top-seeded Thunder need to change up the mojo of this series, which is something none of us were predicting this time last week.
Also, whether it winds up changing the momentum of the series or not, the Hack-a-Whatever-His-Name-Is did give us this fantastic instance of Harden trying to beat the intentional foul by chucking a 38-footer over everything:
So I guess we should just be thanking Scott Brooks for looking out for us. Big ups, coach.
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