The Oklahoma City Thunder, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pledged, “Don’t worry about outside noise” when it comes to any perceived criticism of the young team.
“I think I can speak for the rest of the team in saying we’re just worrying about ourselves,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
The “outside noise” in this case, however, came from within the NBA bubble, when Rockets guard James Harden casually mentioned after Game 2: “We felt Oklahoma City was getting tired, and we kept pressing the gas on them.”
“I honestly didn’t know he said that, and I don’t take it personally,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on Tuesday, as the Thunder prepared for a vital Game 5. “It’s just his opinion, and everyone can have an opinion.”
The Rockets led the opening-round playoff series against the Thunder 2-0 at the time of Harden’s offhanded comment, with two double-digit victories. Since then, the Thunder prevailed in overtime in Game 3, 119-107, in running away from the Rockets in the extra five minutes, and outscored the Rockets 40-24 over the final 15 minutes of Oklahoma City’s 117-114 Game 4 victory.
The Rockets and Thunder, quickly developing their own Red River rivalry, meet at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the bubble in Game 5, in fighting for a 3-2 advantage in the abruptly tight series.
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said he understands why Harden might have pointed out the Thunder seemed tired late in Game 2 — the Rockets’ style prompts exhaustion from the opposition.
“We understand we’re playing against a really difficult team to guard,” Donovan said. “They’ve got an incredible scorer in James Harden, and they’re going to space the floor and move the basketball. It requires a lot of effort and energy to play against them. Our guys are a competitive group, and they’ve tried really, really desperately to get out to the 3-point shooters as quickly as they can, they’ve tried to rotate and scramble and help each other.
“Playing against a team like them, you’re going to have to have that kind of effort for the full 48 minutes. I said after Game 3 we have to come all the way back and do it again in Game 4, and now we have to come all the way back and do it in Game 5.”
The Rockets, who’ve played without guard Russell Westbrook (strained quad muscle) in the first four games, average 30.1 years of age. The Thunder, predominantly picked to miss the playoffs this season during an alleged rebuild, average 25.5 years.
The fourth-seeded Rockets and fifth-seeded Thunder each finished the regular season at 44-28, and Oklahoma City has proven itself more than capable of keeping up with the Rockets in the postseason. The Rockets have six players at least 33 years old; the Thunder have one (guard Chris Paul at 35). As the series wears on for at least six games, the Thunder’s young legs might come in handy against a veteran Rockets squad.
“Everybody has played multiple NBA games, and is probably in as good a shape as they’re going to be,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, 22 and in his second NBA season out of Kentucky. “I don’t think (age) will be too much of a factor, but it could (be).”
Gilgeous-Alexander played a game-high 44 minutes in the Thunder’s Game 4 victory, and he said he didn’t miss a beat.
“I’d like to play 48 every night,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with a chuckle of ideally playing a full four quarters.
Meantime lightning-quick Thunder guard Dennis Schroder, 26, came off the bench in Game 4 and wound up with a team-high 30 points.
“When he comes in, he just injects a different kind of life into our team,” Donovan said of the Sixth Man of the Year candidate. “A lot of it has to do with his mentality as a player — his competitiveness.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said the overall competitiveness of the Thunder, with a roster of eight rookies or first-year players, is what made a difference late in Games 3 and 4.
“In the fourth quarter we like to be a little more aggressive, attacking the rim,” he said. “We have a collective group of guys who have played a bunch of meaningful games and know how to make plays in those moments and in that quarter. You guys saw it in our favor on (Monday).”
Both teams had about four months off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Donovan said a team getting tired late in a game is part of the deal in the postseason, no matter what happened leading up to it.
“Our group is competitive, and I feel like we’re in good condition,” the fifth-year Thunder coach said. “Certainly during the course of a playoffs series, you always feel the fatigue of playing, that’s only normal.
“But I feel good about our team, and the effort they’re making and in doing the things we’re asking them to do.”