Rockets Thunder Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, center right, huddles with his team during the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. 

NORMAN — Tuesday, during the Thunder’s media availability from inside the Disney bubble, a Houston reporter asked both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Billy Donovan if they’d heard what James Harden had said after Game 2, that Houston sensed Oklahoma City had become tired “and we just kept pressing the gas on them.”

The Thunder guard and coach said they’d not heard that. Nor did they point out the irony of Harden’s statement, that his sentiment appears to have been turned on its head since Game 2.

At 5:30 p.m. today, Oklahoma City will be gunning for its third straight victory and a 3-2 advantage in the two teams’ Western Conference quarterfinal series.

Though playoff storylines can change game to game and occasionally quarter to quarter, the latest is that it’s the Thunder, with their youth and conditioning, who appear poised to outlast the Rockets.

There is circumstantial and empirical evidence to that possibility.

The Rockets are ancient by NBA standards. The average age of the five starters — Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, Harden — coach Mike D’Antoni’s putting on the floor is 30.4.

Throw in his three-player bench of Ben McLemore, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers and the average age of Houston's entire rotation is 30 on the nose.

The average age of OKC’s starting five — Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Lu Dort, Chris Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander — is 27.4. Add the Game 4 bench of Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel, Darius Bazeley and Terrance Ferguson and the entire rotation’s average age is 25.7.

Are the Rockets at a disadvantage? Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t want to go there.

“Everybody’s played multiple NBA games and is probably in as good as shape as they’re going to be,” he said, “so I don’t think it’s going to be much of a factor.”

On the other hand, Gilgeous-Alexander played a marathon 43:54 of Game 4’s 48 minutes and finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, while Houston, as a team in the fourth quarter, hit 11 of 25 shots overall, 4 of 19 from 3-point land and committed four of its 14 turnovers. And if Houston was tired, and it certainly looked tired, heaving up brick after brick from distance, Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t. 

“I’d like to play all 48,” he said.

Additionally, even as Donovan has tapered his rotation down to eight or nine players (Ferguson played just 3:17 in Game 4), he’s still using his bench far more than D’Antoni, who played his starters 184:55 of a possible 240 minutes. Oklahoma City’s starters logged 170:54.

Donovan didn’t make any judgments about his team’s alleged fitness advantage, though when he described his players' Game 3 and Game 4 efforts, he described a team with no deficiencies in that area.

“I think our guys are a competitive group and they’ve tried really, really desperately to try to get out to 3-point shooters as quickly as they can,” he said. “They’ve tried to rotate scramble and help each other, and playing against a team like that, you’re going to have to have that kind of effort for the full 48 minutes.

“I said after Game 3, ‘You’re going to have to come all the way back and do it in Game 4.’ And now we’ve got to come all the way back and do it in Game 5.

“I feel good about our team.”

What’s not to feel good about?

It’s won two straight games.

It’s won two straight fourth quarters and an overtime. And, yet again, former Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook still isn’t scheduled to make his series debut today.

Donovan was asked, too, about his team’s ability to bring its best-in-the-NBA “clutch” advantage into the Disney bubble and its series against the Rockets.

“There’s a lot of things we’ve had to get back to,” he said. “You know, four months is a long time to have a layoff … It takes some time for guys to kind of come back.”

Perhaps less time, though, for younger guys with less mileage on their bodies.

Today, the Thunder will try making it three straight victories over the Rockets.

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