OKLAHOMA CITY — The final shot of the evening looked good. It fell short, though, and with that, the Houston Rockets will head into the weekend leading this Western Conference series 2-1 after their 115-113 loss to the Thunder.
Westbrook was outstanding in recording another triple-double: scoring 32 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out 11 assists.
Harden was, well, fantastic. He scored 44 points on 21 shots and 18 made free throws, tying a franchise postseason record for points off free throws. Harden was four assists and four rebounds shy of a triple-double of his own, but his comments after the game spoke to what ails the Rockets right now.
“Yeah, we got to come out with some dog in us,” Harden said. “Second half, we did a really good job on both ends of the floor. We got to come out and it would be a totally different ballgame. I think both Game 2 and Game 3, we spot them 10 points and tried to fight our way back. It’s tough. So we put too much pressure on each possession, especially on the defensive end, so we got to come out in Game 4 ready to go.”
In Friday’s first quarter, Houston allowed 34 points and too many open looks, as it was just muscled around by OKC.
The trend persisted in the second quarter as the Thunder built a 15-point lead. But Houston continued to show the resilience that marked much of its regular season, and it roared back to take a 67-65 lead on a Harden 3-pointer less than three minutes into the second half. The Thunder continued to get great looks at the basket as coach Billy Donovan elected to go with an offensive lineup. It caused problems for the Rockets, prompting coach Mike D’Antoni to stick with a smaller lineup both for offense and quickness.
D’Antoni agreed with Harden that the slow start hurt his team.
“I think we did enough offensively,” D’Antoni said. “We just didn’t have the will or the want early in the game, and then we rectified that. That’s a little bit of a reoccurring theme, is that it takes us a little while to get going. We’ll address it and try to get it better.
“We’ve got to play the whole 48 [minutes] like we did the last 24. The last two games we have not done that. We won one and then we had another chance to win today, but we can’t rely on that. We can do a better job defensively, especially in the first half.”
Houston struggled offensively at times too. There were a season-low 10 assists and no secondary assists from the Rockets. D’Antoni attributed that to players missing shots. Houston shot 45.8 percent from the floor, which is respectable if you win the game; however, the Thunder made 55.4 percent of their attempts, including 47.4 percent from 3.
But three Rockets possessions resulted in shot clock violations, including two in the second half. At times, Harden dribbled and dribbled, looking to move past Andre Roberson and Taj Gibson, but the room wasn’t there. Houston made 10 more passes, at 240, than it did in Game 2, but Harden touched the ball less Friday night, getting 63 touches to his 87 in Game 2.
Yet the Rockets still had a chance to win this game, as four players did all of Houston’s scoring in the fourth quarter. After trailing by 10 with 5:13 to play, the Rockets cut the deficit to three thanks to a Harden 3 and layups from Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
In the closing moments, Harden was twice short on go-ahead 3s, one with 18.8 seconds left, then at the buzzer.
Harden walked off as the crowd noise grew louder and louder. Patrick Beverley, who fouled out and scored just one point, was smiling as he waited for his guy to come off the court.
“That just shows the grit of this team,” Beverley said. “Different people stepped up, and it’s going to be like that the entire playoff series, and we understand that. We are playing a good team with an awesome crowd, fantastic coaching staff, and they made adjustments. We made adjustments.
“And like I said, we had a lead, then a tie game and we ended up with the best player on the planet with the ball in his hands, so there’s no better situation than that.”