OKLAHOMA CITY – Hard to tell what Wednesday night proved past the fact the Thunder are the superior team and the Rockets are an eight-seed. An upstart, but an eight-seed, nonetheless.
The better team won Wednesday in Oklahoma City when the Rockets had a chance and lost their chance late, and now the Thunder have a 2-0 lead in a series that will resume Saturday in Houston for Game 3.
But somewhere after the physical and verbal sparring between Patrick Beverly and Russell Westbrook, during the total rebounding dominance by Houston and sometime before the final buzzer when the better team was outplayed but didn’t lose, Oklahoma City found itself a bit of confidence it just may be able to use as the playoffs unfold.
The Thunder won 105-102, but they didn’t play well, giving up every bit of a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead as Houston obliterated Oklahoma City with a college-like zone defense and a scrappiness on offense that led to a 21-2 run.
“We had some good shots we didn’t make,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “We had our chances to win, but like anything, you have to make a few plays and a few stops. We have to go back to Houston and try to figure out how to beat them.”
Houston and McHale can try to figure out whatever they want, because they did everything they were supposed to. And in fact McHale sort of admitted it, saying, “We know we have to do,” but Oklahoma City won because it went off the map. There was no blueprint for this and really very little precedent to go off.
Trailing 95-91 with 3:10 to play, Westbrook made a pair of free throws and Kevin Durant made a 3-pointer. Certainly, that’s not surprising. The combination gave the Thunder the lead, but Oklahoma City won this game because it didn’t commit a turnover in the final 6-plus minutes.
Oklahoma City won it by getting a Thabo Sefolosha 3-pointer with 1:01 left when Durant chose to pass instead of shoot and the Thunder leading by just one point.
The Thunder won it by getting a Serge Ibaka 19-foot jump shot with 31 seconds left when Durant once again decided to pass rather than shoot.
And the Thunder won it despite a shaky, screwy fourth quarter from both Durant and Westbrook, who teamed up to go 5-of-17 in the final 12 minutes.
“It doesn’t add up, other than it did add up,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, somehow capturing the essence of a win undeserved. “They got the rebounds. We have to do a much better job.”
Houston played this one correctly. It showed extra energy early and shut down Durant late. After a great 15-point first quarter, Durant was silent until late in the fourth quarter, going 1-for-9 until his 3-pointer with 2:28 to play.
The Rockets drew it up perfectly, too. They junked together a zone that forced the Thunder into 37 percent shooting in the second half, while its smaller lineup, featuring James Harden and Beverly, combined for 23 rebounds. Omer Asik had 14 rebounds, Harden had his best game in Oklahoma City, going for 36 points, and an army of Houston players including Francisco Garcia and Beverly, were talking garbage and playing physical with Durant and Westbrook. All this with Jeremy Lin not even playing in the second half, due to a chest contusion.
All this, and the Thunder still won. That has to be something that sticks with this team the rest of the way. Sure, Houston isn’t the Miami Heat, or even Memphis or San Antonio or fill in the blank with your favorite team. But the Thunder won a close game and got pitch-in help from unlikely sources at unlikely times.
“I trusted Thabo,” Durant said of passing out to the perimeter instead of driving to the basket. “I trusted everybody. If I see them open, they are going to make those shots.”
Wednesday, the Thunder did. Sunday, in Game 1, they didn’t have to. The Thunder blitzed the Rockets with late first-half assault and led by as many as 30.
And Saturday when the teams meet up in Houston again, the Thunder may not need a hero late in the game, either. It might just be Durant and Westbrook or any combination of one or the other.
Durant scored 29 points. Westbrook had 29, too, but Ibaka had 12 points and 11 rebounds. Kevin Martin, who has been noticeably absent with his jumper through two games of this series, finished with 10 points, despite going only 3-of-9 from the field. Sefolosha made three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points
“I think all season we’ve been doing a great job of closing out big games and trying to prepare ourselves for moments like this,” Westbrook said. “I thought tonight, we all stuck together. They made a run and made shots, but I thought everybody had a big role toward the end of the game.”