HOUSTON — While Russell Westbrook was cursing on live television, saying he’d already answered a question about his shots and had heard that his coach said he got tired, James Harden was headed home up 2-0.
The Houston Rockets point guard and MVP candidate didn’t have the better scoring line, but that was something Westbrook said he didn’t “give a f—” about, because the Oklahoma City Thunder had lost 115-111 on Wednesday night.
Westbrook won the individual battle, scoring 51 points with 13 assists and 10 rebounds, the highest-scoring 50-plus-point triple-double game in playoff history. But he missed 14 fourth-quarter shots, the most missed shots in any quarter in the last 20 postseasons. Think about that for a moment. That’s more than Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Allen Iverson. Iverson is in the Hall of Fame. The others are headed there.
As for Harden, he took only four shots in the final quarter, scoring seven points. But during a stretch late in the third quarter, he helped the Rockets rally from a double-digit deficit to get back in the game with a 12-3 run. Harden started a run with a 3 and ended it with another over the man who has been like kryptonite to him, Andre Roberson.
“It was huge for us,” Harden said of the third-quarter run. “The entire game, they had us down, I think, double-digits, and we got it to six, and we never got it over that.”
When the night was over, Harden had finished with 35 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds. He also had seven turnovers, more than anybody on the floor, but there were other people who contributed to the cause in terms of scoring.
Eric Gordon and Lou Williams combined for 43 points, and Clint Capela played strong in the second half, finishing with 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Nene Hilario was, once again, a physical presence, grabbing five boards and scoring seven points in 25 minutes off the bench.
The Rockets defense finally slowed down Westbrook in the fourth quarter. Thunder coach Billy Donovan thought his guy got worn down during the contest. There were times Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley and Harden picked him up on the defensive end in the fourth.
Westbrook wouldn’t concede he was tired. What superstar would? But it was clear his shot wasn’t falling.
Much like Harden’s.
“If I’m not mistaken, at the end of the [third] quarter, James hits a shot, and then it went from six to three,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That got everybody riled up, no doubt.”
The Thunder put pressure on Harden all night. It started with Roberson, and when Harden beat him off the dribble, Steven Adams, Taj Gibson and Enes Kanter were waiting for him at the rim. Houston would send two players to set screens to free Harden, but that didn’t always work. The spacing just wasn’t there.
Harden admitted he was passive at times in the first half before changing his mindset in the second.
“I think with the type of talent that James is, he does a good job of paying attention in the game,” Williams said. “He was needed at certain times in the game. I think he realized going into the fourth quarter that we weren’t going to survive without him. We need him to have big efforts, and I think in the fourth quarter he was able to provide that.”
The numbers produced by the two superstars in that fourth quarter were so telling. Westbrook took 18 shots and was minus-7 in the box score with 15 points. Harden? He took just four shots and was plus-3 in the box.
There are times when Harden realizes he can’t do it alone. He trusts his teammates more than he ever has. When Harden hits you with a pass, you’d better be ready. That has been the case most of the season. And now, with a 2-0 lead heading into the weekend in Oklahoma City, the Rockets have control of this series.
“Our first game it was cruise control, and so we knew that Game 2 was going to be a lot different, and it was,” Harden said. “We had to figure out a way to win the game, and so it wasn’t pretty. We didn’t make a lot of shots, and we gave them an early lead, and then we had to fight our way back, and we did. We didn’t give up, we continued to grind and fight and figure out a way to win. Tonight was a perfect case.”