If there were any remaining doubts as to how comfortable Houston Rockets guard James Harden is in the spotlight, how self-effacing he can be in moments when his performance doesn’t match his talent, they were answered with one flash of humor Monday night.
After struggling mightily with his shooting and ball-handling, Harden responded to a postgame inquiry seeking insight into his difficulties by joking about his unconventional double-double in the Rockets’ 105-103 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Toyota Center.
After storming to a 13-point lead, its biggest of the series, Houston hung on for dear life down the stretch of Game 4 and forced a return to Oklahoma City, where the Western Conference quarterfinal series will resume Wednesday night with the Thunder leading 3-1.
“Our previous two games, we let both of those slip away from having the lead late in the fourth quarter and just giving it away,” Harden said after posting 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting and committing 10 turnovers. “Just for us to get our first win under our belt, we have confidence going back to Oklahoma City. Anything can happen.”
The Rockets earned their first postseason victory since May 14, 2009, despite failing to score following Chandler Parsons’ free throw with 2:20 remaining.
Thunder forward Kevin Durant hit a 3-pointer at the 1:42 mark, then threw down a driving slam dunk in traffic 29 seconds later, pulling Oklahoma City to within two points.
However, on their final possession, the Thunder came away empty, with Durant losing the ball near midcourt before Reggie Jackson had his subsequent drive to the basket thwarted by Houston center Omer Asik.
Durant shot 12-for-16 while pacing the Thunder with 38 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while Jackson chipped in 18 points. However, Oklahoma City performed unevenly defensively, struggling to contain the Rockets from the perimeter and in the paint. Houston hit 12 of 27 3-pointers and also scored 44 points inside, twice as many as the Thunder.
“That’s what makes them so tough; they can shoot 3s and they can drive,” Durant said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep them in front and also get to the 3-point line. They knocked down some timely 3s, and so we’ve got to make sure that we correct that.”
Harden stumbled through a trio of failed isolation plays late, but the Rockets persevered. Parsons scored a team-high 27 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out eight assists. Asik finished with 17 points and 14 boards, while Patrick Beverley chipped in 16 points.
The collective effort helped Houston build a 90-77 lead late in the third quarter and allowed the Rockets to hold a 98-90 advantage after two Asik free throws with 7:37 to play. The Thunder rallied late for victories in Games 2 and 3, but the Rockets applied the learned lessons this time.
“I thought they came out and did a good job of making shots ... and then we battled back,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “It was a good game. We didn’t win the game, but I thought we did a lot of good things. There’s a couple things that we can do much better.
”We gave them 31 points off turnovers. A lot of them were live ball for transition points and 3s. Our defense needed to be more consistent.“
The Rockets took an early cue from their frenzied crowd and darted to a 13-4 lead. However, just as in Game 3, the Thunder had a response or, more specifically, Durant did, with two free throws, a three-point play and a 19-foot pull-up jumper that pulled the Thunder even at 16-16.
The Thunder seemed poised to run way when Durant capped a 12-0 burst with a 10-foot bank shot that resulted in a 43-34 lead with 6:29 left in the half. That’s when the Rockets turned to Carlos Delfino because, with Harden spiraling toward more first-half turnovers (seven) than points (six), the Rockets sorely needed someone to step up.
Delfino drilled a 3-pointer and capped a key sequence with a pickpocket of Durant and a subsequent trey just before halftime as the Rockets stole the final five points. What had been a 13-point Thunder lead disappeared completely when Parsons began the third quarter on fire, sparking an opening 10-0 run that pushed Houston back in front 63-60.
Houston was unstoppable in that third quarter, pouring in 38 points on 13-for-20 shooting with Parsons serving as the sparkplug. And now, with their first postseason victory in their possession, the Rockets have something tangible to support their burgeoning confidence.
”We were right in Game 2 at OKC, so we’re confident going in there,“ Parsons said. ”No one is giving us a chance, so really we’ve got no pressure. We’re going in there, and the pressure is on them.“
NOTES: Considering the years it took the Thunder to establish an identity with Durant and Russell Westbrook serving as the core of their organizational foundation, one game without Westbrook doesn’t provide a clear picture of team’s personality moving forward. Westbrook is out for the postseason due to a knee injury. ”It’s definitely going to continue to develop,“ Brooks said. ... For the Rockets, how the Thunder evolve directly impacts their ability to construct a flexible game plan. ”KD (Kevin Durant) handled the ball a little more than I thought he would,“ Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Game 3. ”I thought that they’d let (Reggie) Jackson handle it a little bit more. So we had to take a look at that.“