December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Thunder’s fate

As expected, the Rockets claimed Game Two of their first-round playoff series against the Thunder. Boasting of a system that both caters to head coach Mike D’Antoni’s preferences and maximizes the talent at his disposal, they managed to take care of business in the face of continual onslaught from presumptive Most Valuable Player awardee Russell Westbrook. It wasn’t easy, though, and for a while there, they looked all too ready to surrender homecourt advantage to the decided underdogs.

Interestingly, the Thunder wound up employing a rotation that went 12 deep, four more than the Rockets’ tighter patterns. That said, they rode on Westbrook more yesterday than they ever did throughout the regular season; he was on the court for all but seven minutes of the contest, with his robust triple-double stat line underscoring his importance to their success. And, to their credit, they hit the ground running, opening up a double-digit cushion in the first quarter and maintaining the lead up until a third into the final canto.

Unfortunately for the Thunder, Westbrook ran out of gas in the crunch. He went four-of-18 in the payoff period after going 13-of-25 in the first 36 minutes of play, giving new meaning to his pre-series contention that “when I get on the floor, I’ve got one friend, and that’s the basketball.” The number of shots he took all told was the second highest in 71 years’ worth of National Basketball Association playoff matches. If there was any silver lining, it was that those around him remained committed to the cause, sacrificing their bodies and relentlessly angling to retrieve the rock in order to give it back to him.

Considering how fellow MVP candidate James Harden has proven far more efficient -- not to mention been provided with better support -- in Games One and Two, the best-of-seven affair looks destined to end sooner rather than later. The Thunder are caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. They need Westbrook to keep chugging along to stay competitive, but they also require him to trust them to make the right decisions under pressure. Otherwise, they’re merely justifying his predictable predilection for hero ball, and all they’re ultimately fighting for is the opportunity to come close.

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.