It’s hard to make sense of anything that happened during Wednesday night’s Game 7 between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a quirky 48 minutes, capped off by a stupefying crunchtime that took approximately 11 months to resolve itself. Before it came to an end, we saw egregious flops, invasive officials, strategic blunders, and chaotic desperation: Ten blindfolded men on the deck of a sinking ship that only had five lifejackets.
The nerves were palpable: Houston understood that defeat would most likely result in major changes for its head coach, general manager, two max stars, and boundary-pushing basketball philosophy; the Thunder’s leader, Chris Paul, really wanted to beat the team that traded him. These weren’t typical first-round stakes.
But somehow, those stakes weren’t the most compelling thing about last night’s game. Instead, we were riveted by one of the least likely NBA underdog stories of all time: undrafted two-way rookie Luguentz Dort vs. eight-time All-Star, three-time scoring champion, and one-time NBA MVP James Harden. By just about any quantifiable metric, this was a firecracker vs. an atom bomb—and yet Dort was so nearly the hero, while Harden added yet another lackluster playoff performance to a pile that may one day eclipse all those accolades.
Harden woke up this morning with…four baskets, 17 points, eight bricks out of nine three-point tries and, fortunately for him, one game-saving block on Dort. Dort finished with 30 points, six threes, and unshakable defense on Harden. His 50 percent shooting from the 3-point line was gravy: Dort’s faulty mechanics are a big reason why he went undrafted, and before his explosive season finale there were two doughnut outings—an 0-for-6 drought from the outside in Game 3 and a cringeworthy 0-for-9 outing in Game 5—that justified Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s decision to let him shoot.
But Dort’s defense was a theatrical chess match, waged with confidence and nothing-to-lose guile. The 6’3”, 220-pound Dort hounded Harden all series in a way no other defender has ever been able to: Harden’s effective field goal percentage in seven games was 15.4 percent higher when Dort wasn’t on the floor. Dort’s coverage was so committed, so relentless, gutsy, and obsessive that it nearly served as a referendum on the switch-everything style every great defense has adopted over the past five or so years. Dort refused to switch. Against most teams such a narrow mentality will almost always backfire, but in this case it felt like he was biting the head off a snake.