For 2.5 quarters, the Oklahoma City Thunder may as well have never heard the name Russell Westbrook. They were coasting with a 20-point lead over the Houston Rockets, set to go up 3-0 in the series.
But the Rockets never quit. They just kept shooting and shooting. Eventually, they put together enough runs in the third quarter to seriously close the gap.
That led to a wild fourth quarter that featured everything you hope to get out of a playoff basketball game. The Thunder needed some clutch free-throw shooting and a Kevin Durant three that on any other night misses, to pull out the 104-101 victory.
Chandler Parsons and James Harden were featured on a 13-2 run to close the third quarter, bringing the score to 80-76.
From there Durant dueled the Rockets offense, going for 12 points in the final frame. He finished with 41 points and 14 rebounds, including a sweet posterization of Omer Asik.
James Harden put up 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists, in a losing effort for Houston.
The fourth quarter featured some spectacular back and forth play by an assortment of role players.
Carlos Delfino hit back-to-back threes and scored eight straight points in the middle of the fourth quarter. Delfino later hit another three to give Houston its first lead since the 7:58 mark of the first quarter.
The Rockets showed supreme unselfishness on a final-minute possession. Harden penetrated and kicked, then two more passes found Fransisco Garcia, who knocked down an open three for a 99-97 lead.
Francisco Garcia, playoff hero. Just as we all predicted.— Jason Friedman (@JasonCFriedman) April 28, 2013
Starting for Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson was responsible for the two free throws to ice the game with eight seconds left.
Huge free throws in the final 13 seconds by Russell Westbrook's replacements, Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) April 28, 2013
Unfortunately for Houston, Kevin Durant had the shooter's touch all night. His three from the top of the key in the final minute left silenced the arena speechless. After glancing the rim, the ball bounced north of the shot clock before settling through the net.
That's not the shooter's touch for Durant; It's a shooter's fondle x 10.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) April 28, 2013
The Rockets just missed shots throughout the first half, while Durant couldn't miss. With no Westbrook, he took 30 shots and had 13 attempts from the free-throw line. His extra aggression could be sense throughout the game.
Feel bad about Westbrook, but I'm enjoying the Begrudgingly Selfish Kevin Durant era.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 28, 2013
After playing every minute throughout the blowout first half and third quarter, Durant finally went to the bench with eight minutes to go in the game. Had Oklahoma City found him some rest earlier, perhaps he wouldn't have needed a break in just a two-point game.
So, NOW you sit Durant? Nice. Less than minute of game time for the break.— Jerome Solomon (@JeromeSolomon) April 28, 2013
Perhaps the difference in the game was simply the difference in the levels of each teams' respective superstar. On back-to-back possessions with the game tied, Harden bricked two free throws and Durant sank two.
Differing levels of stardom. In even situation, Harden bricks two freebies at home. Durant sinks two on the road.— Mike Walsh (@3rdStringWalsh) April 28, 2013
The Rockets failed to bring themselves back into the series and now face the incredibly steep challenge of a 3-0 series hole. Game 4 on Monday night will be their final chance this season to prove something and earn some respect in the Western Conference.