The NBA playoffs know drama. In a back-and-forth affair on Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder squeaked past the Houston Rockets by a score of 105-102 in a game they nearly coughed up in the fourth quarter.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led the way for the Thunder, scoring 29 points apiece, but did so on a combined 20-of-51 shooting.
As for the Rockets, James Harden scored a game-high 36 points on 9-of-24 shooting and knocked down 17-of-20 attempts from the free-throw line.
After outscoring the Rockets by four in the third quarter, the Thunder came out positively flat in the fourth, and the Rockets took advantage. A 21-2 run by the Rockets gave them a four-point lead with four minutes to play, while Kevin McHale's zone defense stifled the Thunder's lethal attack.
And then, Durant came alive.
The three-time scoring champion hit a massive go-ahead three with the Thunder down one, and subsequently contorted his body around defenders to find a wide-open Thabo Sefolosha for what wound up sealing the deal.
McHale rolled out a new starting five on Wednesday night, giving Patrick Beverley the starting nod over Greg Smith.
The decision meant switching James Harden onto Serge Ibaka, and it proved to be a smart one. The league's leading shot-blocker was limited to four points and four rebounds in 18 first-half minutes. Harden, on the other hand, thrived to the tune of 17 first-half points and one wicked spin move.
Although Westbrook was forced to sit with six minutes to go in the first period, Reggie Jackson filled in admirably, scoring six points on 2-of-3 from beyond the arc.
The switch flipped for Westbrook when he was clipped by Beverley near the Thunder bench as he attempted to call for time.
After flashing Beverley a death stare and smashing the scorer's table in a fit of rage, Westbrook came alive. The burst and intensity that make Westbrook special had him flying from end to end, and he wound up finishing the half with 13 points (on 4-of-8 shooting), two assists and two steals.
Give Beverley credit, though, for refusing to back down. The former second-round draft pick who averaged 5.6 points per game during the regular season proved that he belongs in the starting lineup with his gutsy effort.
Heckuva half from Patrick Beverley. 9 pts, 6 rbs, 4 asts, been in the middle of everything. #AmexNBA— Lang Whitaker (@langwhitaker) April 25, 2013
With Jeremy Lin sidelined to start the second half (via Jason Friedman on Twitter), Beverley was tasked with locking up Westbrook, but found himself on the bench with four fouls early in the third as the feisty guards traded jabs.
On the night, Beverley finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds in a staggering 41 minutes of action.
Harden and Westbrook traded heavyweight punches throughout the second half, including one massive sledgehammer slam by the Beard.
Fortunately for the Thunder, Westbrook kicked his game into high gear, including a five-point outburst contributing to a 13-0 run that energized a raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd in the third quarter.
The Thunder's defensive intensity picked up as well, as they limited the Rockets to 17 third-quarter points, pushing their lead to six in the process.
Game 2 should serve as a cautionary tale for the Thunder moving forward. They were outhustled and out-rebounded by the Rockets (57 to 40), and now they find themselves fortunate to head to Houston with a 2-0 series lead.
Chandler Parsons made his presence felt as a complementary scorer alongside Harden, dropping 17 points on 7-of-23 shooting.
As for the Thunder, Kevin Martin (10 points) and Serge Ibaka (12 points) were less than spectacular, but did just enough to help the Thunder capture a crucial win on their home court.
Game 3 will take place in Houston on Saturday evening at 9:30 p.m. ET.
Starting an unconventional three-guard lineup, the Rockets tasked Harden with guarding Ibaka. The Thunder countered by cross-matching Sefolosha up with Harden on the other end.
James Harden is guarding Serge Ibaka.Harden picks up his first foul applying too much pressure.— Dime Update (@DimeUpdate) April 24, 2013
For a 6'1'' guard, Beverley made quite an impact on the glass in the first half.
Patrick Beverley has six rebounds...Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have combined for six rebounds.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) April 25, 2013
However, going hard after Westbrook was not Beverley's brightest idea.
Good idea pissing off Westbrook, Patrick.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) April 24, 2013
Don't let anyone tell you Durant is just a jump shooter.
Kevin Durant is making 84% of his shots resulting from a cut to the rim this season.— mySynergySports (@mySynergySports) April 25, 2013
When in doubt, Westbrook turned to that patented pull-up jumper of his.
Russell Westbrook's pop-stick jumper actually controls him. Allows him to square up better than his ordinary jumper.— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) April 25, 2013
Durant was huge down the stretch, knocking down a go-ahead three and finding Sefolosha with a gorgeous feed to extend the Thunder lead to four with a minute to go.
Guess Kevin Durant didn't want to be second to Patrick Beverley.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) April 25, 2013