The Houston Rockets withstood an onslaught in the third quarter to earn a hard-fought 111-107 win at home on Friday night over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With the victory, Houston clinched a spot in the playoffs, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Rockets 111, OKC 107. Rockets clinch their playoff spot.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 5, 2014
At halftime, everything was looking good for the Rockets. The Thunder hadn't led at any point in the first half, and Kevin Durant was held to nine points.
Then came the third, in which OKC scored 39 points. The Rockets' defense was nowhere to be seen, as Durant and Co. seemingly couldn't miss.
The damage could've been much worse for Houston, since it surrendered 34 points in a little over eight-and-a-half minutes, per ESPN's Daily Dime:
OKC literally cannot miss in the third quarter, already have 34 points with 3:26 in the third. Lead Houston 79-71.— Dime Update (@DimeUpdate) April 5, 2014
Houston righted the ship in the fourth quarter. The Rockets regained the defensive pressure that had served it so well in the first half, in particular making sure Durant wasn't able to get a hot hand. It wasn't until late into the fourth that the Durantula found his stroke again, and by then, the Rockets already had a big enough lead.
There was also a stretch with a little over four minutes left in which the Thunder fouled Chandler Parsons and then James Harden on three-point attempts, giving the Rockets six free chances at the line. Parsons hit all three, while Harden hit one, but for OKC to make that kind of mistake in such a close game was hard to comprehend:
OKC with two straight possessions where they foul a Houston 3-point shooter. Big mistake. HOU leads OKC 101-98 with 3:52 left.— Dime Update (@DimeUpdate) April 5, 2014
Francisco Garcia nailed a three-pointer with 2:42 to go, putting Houston up 104-98, essentially shutting the door on any Thunder comeback. The Toyota Center exploded when that shot went in, and you knew that it was the Rockets' game to lose from that point on:
Rockets had missed five free throws and three wide-open corner 3s in the fourth quarter when Garcia nailed his, Rockets up 6, 2:44 left.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 5, 2014
The big question coming into the game was whether or not Durant would tie Michael Jordan's streak of 40 games scoring 25-plus points. Wilt Chamberlain owns the all-time streak, at 80 games, but for Durant to approach MJ in any category is a major accomplishment. Jordan was also the only player in the last 50 years to go 40 games.
Despite that poor first half, Durant came through, finishing with 28 points on 7-of-19 shooting to tie Jordan's mark, per SportsCenter:
Kevin Durant is ON A TEAR. Just dropped 25+ points for 40th straight game, tying Michael Jordan himself for longest streak in last 50 years.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 5, 2014
After the game, Durant refused to acknowledge the achievement, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com.
"We lost the game that's all I'm worried about," he said. "I don't care. We lost."
Durant also spoke about how the Rockets defended him:
"Those dudes can't check me 1-on-1," he said. "They know that. I ain't afraid to say it either. They know that. So I was playing the double-teams, triple-teams, but you still got to find a way to do it. They're physical just like everybody else and I've been playing against physical players my whole life, so it's nothing different."
Parsons did a great job of stifling the Thunder star, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Kevin Durant is 1-5 when guarded by Chandler Parsons with just 4 pts— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 5, 2014
Garcia, a noted Durant-agitator, also found a way to get make himself a nuisance, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:
The streak is extended!!! That's now (unofficially) 87 straight games Kevin Durant has got into it with Francisco Garcia.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 5, 2014
The absence of Dwight Howard was certainly felt by the Rockets. Although they still had Omer Asik underneath, it wasn't enough to prevent Serge Ibaka from having a big night. He was a force on both ends of the court, blocking six shots—four of which came in the first half—and scoring 27 points, tying a career high.
The Rockets hit 13 three-pointers and made 32 of their 37 free-throw attempts to make up for missing Howard inside.
James Harden led all scorers with 39 points. He nearly recorded a triple-double, narrowly missing with nine rebounds and seven assists.
Key Player Grades
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: B+
ESPN Stats & Info has Kevin Durant's shot chart:
Thunder lost, but Kevin Durant still scored enough to extend his streak of 25-pt games to 40. Here's how he did it: pic.twitter.com/ZXYvzy5Tqx— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 5, 2014
The problem with Durant's performance is there were long stretches in which he wasn't impacting the game. It's one thing to score 28 points, but the more important aspect is to score those 28 points when it matters the most.
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder: A-
Houston had no answers for Serge Ibaka. Ibaka did a little bit of everything. Aside from his 27 points, nine rebounds and six blocks, he also had four assists and two steals.
Ibaka even hit two of his four three-point attempts for good measure.
James Harden, Houston Rockets: A-
This was another typical James Harden game where he hits eight or nine field goals but somehow finishes with almost 40 points. Getting to the free-throw line 20 times certainly helps.
Harden had a nice game, though, and when the Rockets needed a big shot, he was more than happy to try and knock it down, which is what you want your star player to do. Harden also had a couple of tomahawk jams that brought the crowd to its feet.
The Rockets stay at home for their next game, with the Denver Nuggets coming to town on Saturday. It's important for Houston to finish this last seven-game stretch strong so as to guarantee home-court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City enters the second game of a four-game road trip, heading to Phoenix for a matchup with the Suns. At this point in the season, the Thunder will want to hold on to a top-three spot in the West in order to avoid Houston in the first round.